Declaring “futility of futilities, all is futile!” in its second verse, and then proceeding to describe human existence in this vein, Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes – the megillah (scroll) that is traditionally read on Shabbat hol ha-moed Sukkot – appears to be a rather depressing text. Conversely, the Hebrew word for happiness, “simcha,” appears more throughout this one text than in the entire Pentateuch! Evidently, despite its tones of profound existential nihilism, the pursuit of meaningful happiness is a major theme in the scroll. This apparent textual inconsistency is beautifully resolved by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Rabbi Sacks explains that the Hebrew term used really means an ephemeral breath, as opposed to the traditional translation of “futility,” and thus Kohelet’s frustration lies in the temporal nature of our existence on earth. Death’s inevitability leads the author to deem life itself pointless, until he realizes that it is precisely our finitude that makes life so precious. Were we to live forever, we would have no drive to act, to be better or to grow. Why put off until tomorrow what we can put off until next millennium? Our desire to grow and to discover meaning stems from our short lifespans.
An alternative explanation of this Hebrew phrase is that our human existence on this earth is changeable, comparable to a gas, which changes its shape, volume and appearance based on its environment. By comparing our existence to breath – a gas – Kohelet is teaching us that we too can transform who we are – but only with effort. We can strive to gain wisdom and to form meaningful relationships. Even when the road to growth seems overwhelming, appearing as if everything we’ve done to refine our character has been pointless, we can choose to keep improving ourselves.
Incredibly, the limited nature of our lives is the very thing that inspires Kohelet to shift from a depressed outlook on life to one of meaningful living, to take advantage of existence in a lifelong journey of growth.