Wednesday, September 25, 2002
In the Jewish division of the Bible, there are three major sections.
The first five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - are the Torah. The next set of books are known as the Prophets. These books include the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and II, and the prophetic books both major (Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah) and minor (the twelve other prophets). The last set of books are known as the Writings. These include the Psalms and Proverbs, the book of Job, the book of Daniel, the late historical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, and the five megillot.
These five books are read as part of the service at each of the three pilgrimage festivals and at the two most important rabbinic holidays of the Jewish calendar, holidays that relate to events recorded in the relevant megillah. The five megillot are: Esther (read on Purim, which celebrates the foiling of Haman's genocidal plans recorded in the Book of Esther), the Song of Songs (read on Passover), Ruth (read on Shavuot, or Pentecost), Lamentations (read on the Ninth of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the tragedy lamented in the Book of Lamentations), and Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes (read this season, on Sukkot).
The last is the surprise of the list. All the other megillot are read at times that "make sense" in terms of the holiday. Esther is about Purim; Lamentations is about the 9th of Av. The Song of Songs is a love song between G-d and Israel, appropriate for the Festival of Freedom; Ruth is a story of betrothal to the laws of Israel, appropriate to the Festival of Receiving the Torah. But Sukkot is the Festival of Joy. Why should we read Ecclesiastes, that least joyful of books?
I must admit, I've never been crazy about Ecclesiastes. It's one of my least favorite books of the Bible. And in some ways it doesn't even feel Jewish. The emphasis on the futility of action, the cyclicality of time, the need to make peace with the world: these are not the themes sounded in Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Isaiah, or even Jeremiah or Job (both of which I adore).
But every now and again, dissonance seems right. This year, right before Rosh Hashanah, we brought home our first child, Moses. It was a singular joy for me that Moses had three great-grandparents present at his circumcision. How many children are so lucky? Now, during Sukkot, the Season of our Joy, that company has been reduced to two. Truly there is a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to cry, and sometimes it is the same time.
When a loved one dies, we are to say: baruch dayan emet, blessed is the righteous judge. There is great merit in acknowledging G-d's justice at a time of trial. But it seems to me, when a man lives to 90 years old, lives to see his first great-grandson, and, when his time comes, is surrounded by his family, and leaves the earth without lingering long to suffer, truly, to say that G-d is a righteous judge in such circumstances is to do great honor to the departed. For few among us will merit so much.