The Coen Brothers’ new movie, “A Serious Man,” has received decidedly mixed reviews; critics disagree on whether its tale of a hapless Jewish academic makes for a brilliant comedy or hopeless bore. But most agree that it is Joel and Ethan Coen’s most overtly Jewish film, a modern-day version of the Book of Job, a man grappling with a litany of tragedies, seemingly brought on for no reason.
This weekend, as the festival of Sukkot morphs into Shemini Atzeret, many synagogues will read Ecclesiastes, surely the most depressing book of the Bible and best known for its mantra: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The author, said to be King Solomon, the wisest of all men, describes his various approaches to life, from abstinence to fully enjoying the world, but in the end concludes that all is futile because death awaits.
Why do we read Ecclesiastes at a time of great joy, leading into Simchat Torah, the celebration of Creation and the renewed cycle of weekly Torah reading?
One might argue that Ecclesiastes reminds us to temper our feelings always, making sure our emotions stay balanced, that we never become too joyful or depressed. Indeed, the most memorable passage of the book begins: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die … A time for war and a time for peace.”
Even at times of great joy, then, we pause to remember our sad history, symbolized by every Jewish groom breaking a glass under the chupah. And in the depths of mourning, we look ahead to renewal. Perhaps it is no accident that the holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah arrive each year as the seasons of nature are about to turn colder and darker, a burst of outdoor brightness before the winter takes hold.
Further comfort comes from the final passage of Ecclesiastes, which strikes a note of hope and purpose in our lives. “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done, revere God and observe His commandments, for that is the whole duty of man.”
There are no easy answers (or perhaps answers at all), to our existential questions about life’s meaning and brevity. The Coen Brothers’ search takes them back to their roots, suburban Minnesota of four decades ago. As a people, we look to our roots, even to the story of Creation.
As the days grow shorter and the shadows longer, we cling to our faith and are reassured as the story of the Bible unfolds once more, offering us the opportunity to read the familiar text anew and dig deeper into its meanings.
May we all find layers of value and wisdom this holiday weekend and throughout the year.