Shemini Atzeret – Yizkor Sermon
October 24, 2016 | 22 Tishrei 5777
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler
To everything, turn, turn, turn.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn,
And a time to every purpose under heaven ….
Some of you can name that tune along with the group that sang those lyrics, right?
But neither David Crosby nor Roger McGuinn nor any other member of the Byrds wrote them.
They didn’t even write the tune – Pete Seeger did that.
No, the author of those words was an individual who likely lived more than two thousand years ago.
To us, that individual is known as Ecclesiastes or Kohelet.
To many traditional Jews, he is known as King Solomon.
“Havel havahleem!” “Hakol hevel!” “Utter futility! All is futile!”
That is the usual way this phrase is translated in the Book of Ecclesiastes, a text traditionally read in the synagogue on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot.
“What real value is there to a person’s efforts and his gains … All is futile!” – That is the message of Kohelet as we usually understand it.
But in a webinar in which I participated this week with Jewish Theological Seminary professor, Stephen Garfinkel, I learned that this word “hevel” means something very different than “futile.”
As a result this biblical book reminds us of an enduring truth, one that is especially relevant as we approach Yizkor.
Kohelet is traditionally viewed as seeking the answer to the ultimate question all of us have – What is the meaning of life?
He suggests several different answers to that question.
Yet none seem to satisfy him.
So at the end of the book, Kohelet throws up his hands in resignation and says, “When all is said and done, revere God and follow the mitzvot.” (12:13)
Dr. Garfinkel helped those of us who participated in this learning session to recognize that Ecclesiastes’ primary message is not about piety (Revere God!) but rather about the reality of life as he observed it.
Not “All is futile!”
But rather “All is fleeting!”
Kohelet meant to convey the transitory nature of life.
You and I know the truth of which he spoke.
See the wisdom of the accumulated years of those who are here this morning.
As that wisdom grows so does our awareness of the fleeting nature of life.
Time speeds up.
It simply passes … and we wonder where it has gone.
So what are we to do?
Two weeks ago – I reminded you about the advice of the Psalmist – “Teach us to number all of our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90)
Be aware of time and its passage, the Psalmist says. Use it wisely.
I don’t know if Kohelet agrees with the Psalmist or not, but his advice about what to do sounds different.
“I realized,” Kohelet says, “that the only worthwhile thing is for people to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetime; also that whenever a man does eat and drink and gets enjoyment out of all his wealth, it is a gift from God.” (3:12-13)
Kohelet’s realization and his implied advice to us seems to be rather base in comparison to the uplifting and challenging words of the Psalmist.
But Kohelet’s advice, especially delivered against the backdrop of Sukkot when we reflect on the bounty that is ours and express appreciation to God, is so very appropriate.
Yes, use your time wisely, the Psalmist says.
But be practical, Kohelet adds.
What is the ultimate answer to the question – What is the meaning of life?
There is no ultimate answer, Kohelet insists!
Life is fleeting.
So, at a time when we think about all that is ours and thank God, enjoy it!
When you are fortunate to live comfortably, appreciate it; it is a gift from God!
As Yizkor begins, we turn our thoughts and hearts to loved ones and friends who are no longer among the living.
Some of them lived to “a ripe old age” and enjoyed the fullness of life.
Others left our world and our daily lives long before they should have.
But in some ways, whether death occurred in old age or much earlier in life, we feel that these loved ones and friends left us too early.
We wanted them to be here.
We needed them to be here.
Yes, life is fleeting.
So, as the Psalmist reminds us – Number your days.
And Kohelet reinforces that message with his own – “Hakol hevel” – “All is fleeting …” so appreciate the goodness in life that God has enabled us to enjoy.