Ecclesiastes and Corona: The Luck of Being Alive

Sukkot is not only the holiday for sitting in outside huts and lulav/etrog shaking. It is also the holiday when we traditionally read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Which is surprising, given that this philosophical tome is considered the most despairing and depressing book in the bible (only Job competes) – but Sukkot is also the only holiday that the bible explicitly calls “the time to be happy” (זמן שמחתנו), no less than three times! (Leviticus 23:40; Deuteronomy 16:14 & 16:15).

A closer look at Kohelet, however, shows that it is not unremittingly pessimistic, but rather “bi-polar”. For example, take these two verses from chapter 2:(13) Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness. (24) There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy pleasure for his labour. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.

Sounds good, no? But these bookend other, “darker” aphorisms: (2:17) So I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (2:23) For all his days are pains, and his occupation vexation; yes, even in the night his heart takes not rest. This also is vanity. And then there’s this, almost a foreboding of Corona: (12:4-5) And the doors shall be shut in the street, when the sound of the grinding is low; and one shall start up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low. Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and terrors shall be in the way…

One would be hard put to think of a more appropriate holiday than our present Corona Sukkot in the midst of mass bi-polarity: hope and despair. Indeed, I would go so far to suggest that Sukkot has always symbolized the ups and downs of human life: individual and social. For what is the sukkah if not moving from our safely permanent abode to a rickety, temporary hut? This is the ever-present threat of human existence: one day with a job – the next “on furlough” (or worse); one day, healthy functioning – the next day, difficulty breathing.

Judaism has ways of dealing with this, and it involves appreciating life – especially in times of danger. For instance, when Jews survive a life-threatening experience, they are enjoined to recite a special prayer: “gomel”. However, what of a chronic, ongoing danger such as our present Corona pandemic? Here we have to zoom out and look at the bigger picture for succor. I would like to do just that here – a sort of IMAXing the traditional morning prayer “modeh ani” (“I am thankful for being alive”).

Looked at with a very wide lens, everyone in the world is incredibly lucky to be alive. Think about the very small chance of your parents meeting when they did. In the course of their youth and young adulthood, they would have met – even superficially – a few thousand people, among the hundreds of millions that they could have met, and of them the thousands they reasonably could have married. And if they had met someone else, you wouldn’t be here!

Moreover, and this is something of a head scratcher, there occurred an even greater “lucky event” in your past. Whereas your mother dropped one ovum each month down her fallopian tubes to be (potentially) impregnated, your father’s ejaculate contained close to one hundred million (100,000,000!) sperm. If that one specific sperm that impregnated your mom’s egg had been beaten in that swimming race by one other among the “99,999,999” sperm, would YOU be alive at all? Probably not – just someone pretty similar to you (at least, similar to when you were a newborn).

Clearly, becoming a living being is a function of existential luck – but how we live is a matter of personal attitude and perspective. As human beings we are capable of shifting our viewpoint once we look at the mirror straight on, instead of from the side. That seems to be what Kohelet was doing – a constant shifting of perspective to find the right life balance, and the correct balance regarding life. But the focus there was mainly on the vanity of “accomplishment” (as the Romans put it: sic transit gloria mundi: fame is fleeting), not on the fact of actually being alive.

In fact, each of us is even more lucky to be alive than the above parental egg and sperm scenario. That’s because the exact same “winning the life lottery” event occurred in each and every generation of everyone’s personal forebears! In other words, if any procreation act of any of your grand/grand/grand(etc)parents going back thousands of years had a different sperm win that specific impregnation race to the ovum, you would not be here (or anywhere, ever)!

Obviously, no one can go through life thinking about this every moment of the day. The problem is that few of us think at all about how lucky we are to be here. Sitting in our temporary sukkah, reading Kohelet might just be the perfect time for such reflection – not only despite Corona, but perhaps especially in the era of our contemporary plague.

Oct. 4, 2020



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