David Segal: Our days are numbered: How will you make them count?
October 5, 2012
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time for every purpose, under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to laugh, a time to weep.”
Although the Byrds’ 1965 hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!” made these words famous in the 20th century, their song was a remix of lyrics from a source so ancient that “golden oldie” doesn’t begin to do it justice. Ecclesiastes was their inspiration, one of the more radical and existential books in the Bible. It speaks of the impermanence of all things, the inevitable cycle of birth and death, of growth and decay.
We are nearing the end of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, an eight-day harvest celebration during which Jews build an outdoor booth known as a sukkah. It’s no coincidence that we read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, with its theme of impermanence. One of the key requirements of a sukkah is that it be a temporary structure. It’s a reminder, in the form of a transient physical space in which we share meals and blessings during this festive week, that all things eventually pass away. This holiday falls in autumn as trees are changing and shedding, one season’s leaves leaving to make room for the next.
In the words of Ecclesiastes, “One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. … For the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten. … As man came forth from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, taking nothing of his labors to carry with him in his hand” (1:4, 2:16, 5:15).
It’s an uncomfortable message. It doesn’t seem to match the American Dream’s championing of a strong work ethic together with a belief in the value of hard work and success. It implies that we don’t amount to much, nor do we leave a lasting legacy behind. The King James Bible translation of the most important motif in Ecclesiastes highlights this depressing theme, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (1:2).
But ultimately Ecclesiastes and Sukkot are not about despair. Better than translating those opening words as “vanity,” we might interpret that idea as vapor, evanescence, transience or impermanence. In response, we should not give up, depressed and fatalistic. Rather we should face reality, first soberly and then joyfully, acknowledging the blessing and abundance we are graced to enjoy in this life.
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“Behold, this I have observed as a real good: to eat, drink, and enjoy the good of all your labor under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given you” (5:17).
Indeed, during the Festival of Sukkot, we are even commanded to rejoice. It’s not an option; it’s a rule!
There is great wisdom in these words and customs. They teach us to look head-on at impermanence and mortality without flinching and then to take that encounter as a wake-up call. No one can answer, “When will my days run out? But we must all ask ourselves, “How will I use whatever days I have?”
Let us all learn to fill our days – our temporary, uncertain span of life – with as much joy and goodness as we can find. I’ll drink to that: L’chaim.
(For some Sukkot fun for the whole family, join us for our first-ever Sukkot Festival at Rock Bottom Ranch, from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Celebrate with apple cider pressing, face-painting, arts and crafts, games, snacks and an opportunity to shake the lulav and etrog in the sukkah.)
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