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Kohelet’s Lessons For A New Year

October 21, 2019 at 5:17 am
by Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

How do we address our challenging world through a Jewish lens? As we live in a complicated world, we look to the ancient wisdom of Jewish texts for inspiration. Preparing for the Yamim Noraim—the upcoming Days of Awe—I opened my favorite Jewish text, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). We read this text each year during Sukkot. It reminds us of the fragility of life—and the delicate dance we do to keep life in balance. It is the ultimate commentary on the seeming futility of life… and the beauty that is contained in life’s day to day activities.

You probably know the famous verses in Chapter 3… It begins: “Everything has an appointed season and there is time for everything under the sun.” Words of wisdom from the past, they remind us that life has a rhythm to it, an order. There is time to live and time to enjoy—even as we work to fix the problems in our day. How do we face the challenges of our time? Kohelet instructs us to educate; to build community; to speak up; and to have gratitude.

“THERE IS A TIME TO PLANT AND A TIME TO UPROOT THAT WHICH IS PLANTED.”

(Kohelet 3:2) As Jews, we always look to the future. We are driven by a mandate to repair the world—to engage in Tikkun Olam. We build for the generations yet to come. How can we plant seeds now that will be harvested in the future?

“THERE IS A TIME TO BREAK AND A TIME TO BUILD.”

(Kohelet 3:3) We rely on each other to sustain us. We create an unbreakable network of people. And together, we experience life’s joys and challenges. How can we strengthen community?

“THERE IS A TIME TO BE SILENT AND A TIME TO SPEAK.”

(Kohelet 3:7) We must stand up for what we believe in. Judaism teaches us to speak up and speak out. We are the voice for those who have no voice. How can we help to bring justice to our world?

“THERE IS A TIME TO WEEP AND A TIME TO LAUGH, A TIME TO WAIL AND A TIME TO DANCE.” (Kohelet 3:4)

We end Jewish weddings with the breaking of a glass—the ultimate reminder that happy and sad are intertwined. We know that there is meaning in mourning and in weeping. But we also are taught to laugh heartily and to celebrate the wonders of our world and our lives. We fill ourselves with gratitude—recognizing the miracles all around us. And we dance joyously whenever we can!

Our Jewish community is made up of organizations and institutions that help us bring Kohelet’s profound words to life. One of the most important of these organizations is Birthright Israel. Birthright Israel empowers our young people to find their voices and to become leaders of the future. Birthright Israel is the embodiment of Kohelet’s instructions: It teaches participants how to educate, build community, speak up and have gratitude. Turning young Jewish learners into future Jewish leaders ensures a bright future. Hope has kept the Jewish people alive through thousands of years of challenges. Thanks to Birthright Israel and other organizations that build strong, informed and outspoken young leaders of our community, our commitment to the future is strong.

As we enter our High Holy Day season, the words of Kohelet remind us of the work ahead. This is a season to reflect on renewal and hope; on repair and forgiveness; on rejoicing and gratitude. The world in which we live serves as a backdrop for our own good work…and a reminder that there is much to be done! Shana tova—to a happy, healthy and meaningful year ahead!


Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco and a member of Birthright Israel Foundation’s Bay Area Leadership Council.

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