To rejoice and to love: two salient emotions G-d Commands of His people. What glorious habits to cultivate, regardless of one’s religion, simply to pronounce and re-pronounce our humanity.
We are instructed to revel in ecstatic joy on Sukkot, to rejoice in the extreme: “You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot for seven days… and you shall rejoice in your Festival… and you will only be happy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15). Joy predisposes us to trust in G-d, and trust bewilders doubt.
And in the slavery-dipped days of Pesach we read Shir HaShirim, the rich and euphoric yearning of King Solomon’s youthful intimacy. Through the Song of Songs, G-d Obliviates the dreary grey of winter in a heady eddy of gamboling love. Revelling in our new liberation, the first holiday of the religious year celebrates the intimate love between G-d and our people. Trust is the foundation of love, and our trust in G-d is what empowers us to leave the beaten-down security of Mitzrayim for the wide-open risk of Sinai.
But why on the joyous Chol HaMoed Sukkot do we read the grim book of Kohelet, the bleak and hard-won wisdom of the sad, geriatric Solomon? “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full … All things are wearisome … The eye shall not be sated from seeing, nor shall the ear be filled from hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:7-8).
Rabbi Akiva writes that each of these books alone, Kohelet and Shir HaShirim, embodies the essential truth of the whole Bible. Perhaps we find the key to unlocking Kohelet’s joy in the final two lines of the book: “The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man. For every deed G-d will Bring to judgment, for every hidden thing, whether good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Kohelet provides the existential pique to remind us that earthly life is transitory. But only from an artificial distance, stripped of our first-person presence, does life appear hevel (a fruitless vanity). G-d Dispels a meaningless life through subjectivity. When we are convinced He cares for us and when we comport ourselves accordingly, we intuit our own lives’ merit.
Purim and Chanukah, our minor holidays, seem jumbled and reversed in their timing. Intuition places Purim’s joyous excess as a dénouement to the bounty of Sukkot, while Chanukah’s dismantling of Greek oppression aligns easily with the Passover narrative. Like all of Judaism’s mysteries, this incongruence in our calendar must serve a purpose.
The chronology of our major and minor holidays follows the Jewish people’s progression—from Purim and Pesach in far-flung galut, through Shavuot and Sukkot in their commemoration of our wilderness wandering, and onto the events of Chanukah, which uniquely transpire inside Eretz Israel. This places the heart of Chanukah near to the Messiah, our symbol of surety transcending evil and good.
In a way, Chanukah and Purim are interchangeable. Each forms a bookend of winter, entering and emerging. Ahava v’simcha, love and joy braided together, ferry us through the darkness. Love and joy reinforce one another toward the essence of infinity. We are at once in reverie and in G-dly experience.
Purim is the ultimate chag sameach, an expression of wild and unbounded joy. We draw from this deep, self-replenishing well of joy when we re-dedicate the Temple on Chanukah. As our intense love of G-d transcends the obliviating objectivity in Kohelet’s vision, so does the intensity of our Chanukah joy transcend the obliviations of exile. When we light the Chanukah candles, we are all the Kohen HaGadol, each of us the High Priest tending to the eternal flame in the Temple. G-d’s Redemption of the multiverse is re-imagined every day of Chanukah. The Jewish people, once freed, are obligated to dedicate ourselves to re-building the Temple so that G-d may Reside on Earth and within us all. Amen.