Back in April I leyned from the torah for the first time since my bas mitzvah. It’s addicting; I started leyning every other week, and then three weeks out of each month, and my fellow morning commuters on the downtown 4/5 train seem to have become accustomed to hearing the freckled girl with the latté sing Moroccan trope at 7:30 am.
After 6 months of torah, I decided I was ready for more… just in time to receive email from my shul looking for readers for Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which requires a special festival trope, a different way of singing the text. Perfect! I wrote back immediately, sign me up!
I’d read Kohelet before, and I of course knew that this was not one of the happy-ending books like Ruth or Esther, which also use special trope… but I thought, so what? I haven’t been singing just the nice bits of the torah for the last six months. I’ve been singing about sacrifices! Murder! Disease! Adultery! News at Eleven!
What I hadn’t anticipated was that every time I sat down to start learning, Kohelet was so depressing that it dragged me down until I could barely move, much less sing. After the newness of Rosh Hashanah, the introspection of Yom Kippur, and the pure fun of Sukkot, reading Kohelet was a shock to my system. Why in the middle of so much joy and renewal would we read something that’s such a downer?
The days dragged by, and every now and then I’d make an attempt to really study the Hebrew, to listen again to my CD of the trope, to try to put it all together and get it in my head before it was too late.
And then it was Thursday, and I realized that come Saturday morning I was doomed. All is futility indeed! And my Friday plans involved going directly from work to dinner in the sukkah with good friends, which I was not willing to forego for the sake of learning something I’d had a month to study. I had one night, Thursday evening, to learn to sing a verse of the most depressing song since Eleanor Rigby.
It’s a tough book to read; Kohelet, son of David, is in the depths of depression over the state of the world and his inability to find meaningful joy in any activity. But we’ve all been there at one time or another, the result of reading about the continuing genocide in Darfur, the statistics which show that more and more people are homeless, watching the earth slowly grind to a halt as our leaders deplete its’ resources one by one, or even dealing with the disappointments and setbacks in our personal lives.
But why read this now? I struggled with this, knowing that the cycles of the Jewish year are not accidental, wanting to figure out how this part of the cycle was supposed to help me understand the world a little more.
We read Kohelet at the end of Sukkot, at the end of the harvest, when we’re preparing to take down the sukkah and go back to our houses. There’s a lot of fun to be had in planning, building, decorating, and finally spending a week eating and (in certain latitudes) sleeping in the sukkah. But taking down the sukkah is anticlimactic. The week has taken its toll on the s’chach and the decorations, the beautiful structure we created is dismantled, and the once-living branches that sheltered us are put out with the trash or mulched into the ground.
At the risk of sounding like an English major, it is also the season in which we construct and deconstruct our own souls. The rest of the year tears me to pieces; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur put me back together again. We hope we have been inscribed for another year of life, but Kohelet toys with that hope, forcing us to consider how we will live in the next year, whether that year of life will have meaning or not. As we take the sukkah down, we prepare to dress the torahs in their everyday clothes, putting away their kittles, and ours, for another year. We come out of our booths and our states of reflection and prepare to re-enter the daily grind.
And Kohelet? I’m still not completely satisfied with any explanation of why we read this now. I sat down Thursday night and made myself learn my portion, despite the fact that I still had issues with David’s son whining about the state of the world. And on Friday, my last dinner in the sukkah for 5767 was a joyous, musical, delicious occasion. Even though Kohelet was still difficult for me to read, the sense of having started the new year with something new, of struggling to learn something that disturbed me, of accomplishing something I had felt was futile, made singing it much more satisfying than I had imagined.