Yet Ecclesiastes is far from nihilistic, and a deeper understanding of what Solomon means by “vanity” is the key to making sense of Sukkot. “Vanity” is the common translation of the Hebrew word hevel, which literally means “vapor” or “breath.” Hence, “fleeting” is a more suitable translation.
Solomon emphasizes that life is short but not meaningless. Consider Ecclesiastes 9:9, an exhortation to man, with hevel translated in this way: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days, for that is your portion in life and in your toil that you toil under the sun.” A disposition to enjoy life transforms its ephemerality from a source of anxiety to a focus on the healthy pleasures of humanity. Life becomes an end in itself.
The Talmud resolves Ecclesiastes’ contradictory verses on joy by noting that whereas Solomon praises joy that ensues from performing a mitzvah (divine commandment), he derides joy that is not born out of a mitzvah. We can understand this to mean that true joy is joy with purpose—joy in the intentional pursuit of a larger goal.
Life’s transience should enhance, not weaken, our satisfaction.
— Indian Editorials (@IndianEditorial) September 28, 2018