Today we read Megillat Kohelet, the Scroll of the Ecclesiastes, in order to complete the connection between all 5 scrolls and a Jewish festival. In the manuscripts of Masekhet Sofrim, the Tractate of the Scribes, written in the Middle Ages, appears that we read the Scroll of Esther in Purim, the Scroll of Ruth in Shavuot, the Scroll of Eicha or Lamentations in Tisha B’Av and the Scroll of Shir Hashirim, or the Song of songs in Pesach. Kohelet doesn’t appear, but the rabbis of the period that quoted this text included Kohelet and Succot on the list, what might show a custom already in practice between the people.
In any case, the Sages tried to find meaningful explanations for this custom. Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan from Lunel explains in his book Sefer Hamanhig, the Book of the Leader, that the source for the custom is in a verse of Kohelet: “Give a portion to seven and also to eight”. He sees here a hint to the seven days of Succot and the eighth day of Shmini Atzeret. Rabbi Ben Nathan adds another explanation, however, saying that according to tradition Kohelet was written by King Solomon and was read for the first time in the ceremony of Hakhel, the big Congregation of the people of Israel where the King would read parts of the Torah to the people. This ceremony was done in Succot.
Another way of understand is because of Succot being the time of our happiness and Kohelet helpings us to understand real happiness: that a rich person is only the one happy with his own portion.
The last explanation sees the scrolls as related to life cycle events. Shir Hashirim in Pesach symbolizes the spring, the peak of life. Kohelet is read in Succot, in the autumn, and symbolizes old age and the wisdom acquired through a long life.
Kohelet uses a lot the word vanity, hevel in Hebrew, to describe things in life and asks what purpose can have a man working under the Sun. One interpretation understands “under the Sun” to mean in the physical World, to work only for physical gain. And to that work, to that life, Kohelet calls Hevel, that in Hebrew means also the small cloud of breath visible in cold days that disappears almost immediately. A life centered in the physical is as fragile, as short lived as that Hevel, that appears and disappears in a moment.
Therefore Kohelet is a good book to read in Succot. During the year we live in houses with a roof above our heads, that separates between the sky and ourselves, between Heaven and ourselves. In Succot we sit in a hut with only branches above us, that don’t really separate between us and the sky. In the Sucah we eat, drink, sleep and we live physical lives, but at the same time we feel the Shechina, the Divine presence through the roof of the Sucah and fill our lives with holiness, adding meaning to our normal lives. Our physical existence turns into a mitzvah, a holy action.
G-d gave us a wonderful life, full of beauty and song. There is a challenge though, that we have to let the Divine to light our lives making them a life of meaning, optimism and holiness; and not Hevel, vanity.
We are bnei adam, sons and daughter of Adam, whose name comes from the land that formed him. We are beings rooted to the land, but with the potential to reach Heaven. How much we develop our Divine spark and make it the guide in our lives is the measure of the level of meaning, hope and happiness we have.