I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
So wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in the 19th century. But the story of that colossal wreck is not new; in fact, as was written by Kohelet long ago, there is nothing new under the sun.
One might think Kohelet is the voice of a pessimist. For example, this could potentially make you kind of down (1:18) — “For in much wisdom is much vexation; and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
But according to Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotoposky, z”l, the Book of Kohelet, in light of its rabbinic and midrashic interpretations, is far from pessimistic. In an essay called “The Reality of the Spiritual,” a sermon given on Sukkot, October 4, 1947, from the book Rejoice in Your Festivals, Rabbi Kanotopsky wrote:
It may be that our misconception of the philosophy of Kohelet stems from an incorrect interpretation of the refrain Haveil Havalim, which we translate as “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Now we usually associate the term vanity with something that is futile and vain and useless. But the rabbis, in the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 1:3) gave a much more profound interpretation of this verse. They interpreted the word haveil to mean heat and they explained: it is as though one were to pile up seven pots, one on top of the other, and the heat of the top one is negligible, insignificant, transient. The rabbis seem to detect in the term Haveil Havalim not so much the futility of life, but rather the transient and changing and unstable nature of the material pursuits of man.
The rabbis comment on this phrase from Kohelet:
“What profit is there for man in all his toil which he toils under the sun?”
And the response is the toil of Torah is the profit.
Rabbi Kanotoposky continues:
In every generation thoughtful minds have wrestled with the transient nature of life. I am reminded of the beautiful poem by the English poet Shelley, entitled “Ozymandias”, in which he tells of the traveler who came from an ancient land where he encountered in the desert two trunkless legs of stone… This parallels the philosophy of Kohelet. Material life is temporary. Material power is changing. But the core of Shlomo Ha-Melekh’s thesis, which the poet left out, is the crucial conclusion (Kohelet 12:13): Fear of God and leading a life of Torah and mitzvot and of spiritual wealth: this is the real essence of man.
At the end of the essay, Rabbi Kanotopsky explains why we read Kohelet on Sukkot:
The essence of the sukkah is the schach (the branches or wood on the top of the sukkah), which our mystical literature calls the shade of God. The sukkah teaches us this very lesson. There is nothing concrete, nothing eternal and nothing stable except the “shade of God”… one must be imbued with religious values to accept this thesis. One must be master of himself to apply this philosophy to his real life. This is the message of the sukkah, and this is the philosophy and message of Sukkot.