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An Ephemeral Booth or a Lasting Legacy? How Should We View Our Lives?

Mati Kirschenbaum

During Sukkot we read the Book of Ecclesiastes, which seems to claim that human life is equally ephemeral as the Sukkot booths which we build. Kohelet describes the transient character of human achievements in the following way:

So, too, I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun. For I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me— and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?—and he will control all the wealth that I gained by toil and wisdom under the sun. That too is [fleeting]
(Ecclesiastes 2:18-19.)

I was reminded of Kohelet’s words as I was reading this week’s Torah Portion VeZot HaBracha (“This is the Blessing”), the last Parasha in the yearly Torah reading cycle. In this Parasha Moses blesses each of the tribes of the people of Israel. However, personally he has no reason to be joyous, since the Eternal commands him to go to the top of Mount Nebo, where he will face his own death. Moses has been deprived of the possibility to enter the Promised Land, he can only see it from the top of the mountain. Facing such a fate could have evoked a sense of injustice in Moses. Who knows, maybe deep down he wanted to repeat the words of Kohelet expressing the sadness stemming from not being able to enjoy the fruits of his own efforts?

That’s exactly how many sages within our tradition seem to interpret Moses’ feelings. In the Talmud we find a harrowing description of Moses weeping as the Eternal is dictating to him the words of the Torah describing his own death. I can imagine Moses’ sadness as he realizes that he is about to die. He might be afraid that his achievements won’t be remembered.

In the Talmud we find a parable which refers to Moses’ fear of being forgotten. It describes Moses’ journey, during which he visits Rabbi Akiba’s yeshiva. At the yeshiva he sits in the last row and he listens to the discussion between rabbi Akiba’s disciples. And he can’t understand anything of what’s being said! Feeling alienated, Moses wants to leave the yeshiva. However, suddenly he hears the words of Rabbi Akiva, who states that the discussion between the disciples refers to the law received by Moses at Sinai. This reassures Moses, who realizes that his achievements will become a starting point for the deliberations of future generations.

The above mentioned parable about Moses makes us realize that our achievements do not belong to ourselves. On the contrary, our achievements can help subsequent generations  gain a deeper understanding of the world. How so? In ways we can’t even imagine. That’s why we should not spend too much time wondering if we’ll leave something permanent behind us. Kohelet warns us against this as well, as he describes all of our endeavors with the Hebrew term hevel. In Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible this word is translated as “vanity”. According to this translation the most famous of Kohelet’s quotes sounds as follows: “Vanity of vanities  and all is vanity.” However, this is not an appropriate translation. The meaning of the term “hevel” is closer to words such as “transience” and “fleeting”. Hence our achievements are not in vain – they are fleeting – we are not able to assess their future significance, we can only trust the Eternal and keep on doing what we can as best as we can. That is exactly what Moses did and he is considered the most outstanding among all the Israelite’s leaders, even though he never reached the Promised Land. On this Shabbat which falls during Sukkot I encourage you to appreciate your own achievements, even if they might seem insignificant to you. Who knows, perhaps one day they will become the basis of something great? Shabbat Shalom veMoadim LeSimcha!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,