Evil under the Sun. A Time to Kill. The Golden Bowl. The House of Mirth. Earth Abides. The Sun Also Rises. All the Rivers Run to the Sea. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
What do these phrases have in common? Are you stumped? All are books whose titles borrow quotations from Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during Sukkot. However, the last one, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is a trick question. It is actually the name of a book within a book in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle. The verse Dick is alluding to is this: “Also afraid of that which is high and terrors in the way, and the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and the caperberry fails and because man goes to his eternal home and mourners circulate in the streets.” The verse, an eloquent reflection on the fragility of human life, could be seen as the crux and core of the whole of Dick’s book.
Ecclesiastes itself is all about duality: One could frame it as a dialogue between reality and alternate reality in the key of Greek philosophical ideas of its time. A back and forth between the hevel (futility and breath are both translations of the Hebrew) of an absurdly short breath and span of time humans have to live, and the possibility within that of accomplishing something meaningful and experiencing joy. The contradictions seem central to the book. Michael Fox says that Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet in Hebrew, “recommends simchah” (joy) and “emphasizes the transience of human life.”
The book, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of Ecclesiastes, “reads almost like a dialogue between the author’s jaded persona and his other voice that keeps saying, ‘Rejoice.’” No wonder it has inspired the titles of so many literary works of such diverse purposes, and no wonder that it is read during Sukkot, a celebration of all things transient.
The lead-in from Yom Kippur and the preceding Days of Awe culminating in the holiday of Sukkot can be seen as a lived expression of this awareness of the fragility of our lives as well as the need to create and embody joy. The cycle of the Jewish holidays demands that we take this time, from the beginning of the month of Elul until Yom Kippur, to clarify our values and identify what we are striving for. Then, once resolved, we Jews can choose to live fully and rejoice by going to dwell in a temporary shelter for seven days. A wonderful essay by the late journalist Ellen Willis tells of her time with her brother at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. A rabbi tells Willis, “Find out what you’re living for, Ellen. Clarity or death!” Though his formulation is extreme, the point is made. Once we have clarity, death is less frightening and we are freed to rejoice.
On Yom Kippur, we stage our own deaths, wearing white garments like shrouds and refraining from food and drink and other bodily pleasures. We ask God to inscribe and then seal us for a good year in the book of life while continuously knowing how fragile life is and how much it can change in an instant. And we read about Jonah, a sinner who has to decide whether or not to repent, an idea more fully explored in a recent book on the prophet. On Sukkot, we have Kohelet, a figure who speaks loftily of life’s ephemeral nature. It is only after fully experiencing both these perspectives that we are ready to begin anew with the reading of the Torah from the beginning, with Genesis.
The culmination of the season of atonement is setting aside days specifically for joy on Sukkot which is called by the rabbis, “zman simchateinu,” the season of our joy, letting us spend time with family and friends, savoring the good life outside, in a booth under the shelter of God’s presence. Huddled in an intentionally flimsy structure, we focus on the basics, on what is truly meaningful in life. And we read Ecclesiastes, which reminds us to always hold two things in our mind at the same time: The sukkah is our home for the duration of the holiday, and reminds us that no home is permanent, all is transient. Much has been written about why Ecclesiastes is the chosen reading matter for the Sukkot season, the interim Sabbath of the holiday. Holding two things in mind at same time, absurdity and happiness, reality and alternate reality, Kohelet as well as the alternate realities the text has spawned in literature is appropriate for orienting ourselves to how to conduct our lives throughout the coming year. It’s why the text has inspired so many great writers, and why it continues to inspire us today.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.