“Utter meaningless. Everything is meaningless.”
We all have moments when we resonate with Ecclesiastes’ maudlin opening: “Everything is meaningless.” Bible scholar Robert Alter translates “hevel” not as meaningless or vanity but as breath. All is vaporous and disappears as quickly as a human breath. Yet, over Sukkot, when we read Ecclesiastes in the synagogue, this is usually not the sentiment we feel. It’s a harvest holiday. It’s referred to in Hebrew as our time of joy, not our time of existential angst. And, as Ecclesiastes continues, it does not get better. There is no happy ending: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)
These verses are reminiscent of others found in our wisdom literature. One in particular stands out. If you walk past Emerson Hall’s philosophy department at Harvard, you’ll find these bold words in capital letters chiseled in stone framing the top of the building. “WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM?” How’s that for an ego boost, as some of the world’s smartest young men and women walk through those doors? Remember: you’re nothing. But, in truth, this is faulty biblical advertising because the psalm continues: “What is man, that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You pay attention to him?” You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5-6). Human buildings are a strange amalgam. We are nothing and something at the same time.
The Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, writing on this psalm, captures its dialectic nature: “In a pensive mood, the psalmist muses upon a double paradox. There is the seeming contradiction between God’s transcendence and His immanence: God is beyond the limits of human cognition; yet He has chosen to make His presence indwell in the life of humanity.”
Emerson Hall, as I once wrote before, was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a great American writer and thinker who was also a Unitarian minister and headed the Transcendentalist Movement. He was a Harvard student twice. He was first accepted to Harvard at 14 and was graduated at 18 and then returned to study in Harvard’s divinity school and continued his relationship with the university. In the same vein as our quote, Emerson once said, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
Thinking about the world and our Creator makes us feel small indeed. The human ego must humble itself before a complicated and vast universe of mystery. But to be human is also to assert oneself in that universe in God’s image. This dialectic tension surfaces strongly on Sukkot, where we hold symbols of the harvest, bless them and shake them, often in a sukka, a fragile and temporary building. The sukka reminds us that even buildings of brick and mortar, structures that seem durable and long-lasting, will not last forever. Nothing we humans make will last forever. For now, we are but breath. Breath disappears, true, but it is also that involuntary movement that reminds us that we are still alive, pulsing with gratitude, anxious to create something of importance in this small life we’ve been given.
If the sign of adult maturity is the capacity to hold contradiction, then Sukkot reminds us to lean into our complex mix of majesty and humility.