A dvar Torah for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot
By Rabbi Sacks
The brutal murder of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin in the presence of their four young children has shocked us all. It is hard to enter the spirit of zeman simchatenu, our festival of joy, in the midst of such lacerating grief. Our thoughts are with their children, and with their parents, Chanan and Hila Armony and Rabbi Yehudah and Rebbanit Chana Henkin, two of the great Jewish role models of our time. We ask, Zu Torah vezu sechorah, is this the Torah and this its reward? But we know better than to wait for an answer. In the end all we can do is to join the bereaved in our prayers. These words are dedicated to the memory of those who were killed.
At the end of his life Moses set out the great choice faced not just by Jews but by humanity as a whole: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your children may live.”
Why did Moses need to say such a thing? Did we not know, without his telling us, to choose life? Is it not obvious that, given the choice, we would choose the blessing, not the curse? The answer is given in the book we will read tomorrow, Kohelet, one of the most profound of all reflections on the nature of life and death.
The keyword of Kohelet is hevel. It appears no less than thirty-eight times, five times in a single sentence: “Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Hevel has been variously translated as “meaningless, pointless, futile,” as well as “vanity” in the seventeenth century sense, when it meant, not excessive self-regard but rather, “worthless.” Yet none of these is the primary meaning of the word.
Hevel means “a shallow breath.” The Hebrew words for soul – nefesh, ruach, neshamah – all have to do with the act of breathing. Hevel is a short, fleeting breath. What obsessed Kohelet was how fragile and vulnerable life is. We are biological beings of bewildering complexity, yet what separates being from non-being, life from death, is not complex at all. It is mere breath. When I read Kohelet I think of King Lear at the end of Shakespeare’s play, holding in his arms the lifeless body of his daughter Cordelia, weeping and saying, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / and thou no breath at all.”
Kohelet is, among other things, a midrash on the first two human children, whose story has become terribly relevant in our time. It is no accident that the victim of the first murder in the Torah was called Hevel (Abel). Hevel represents the fragility of life. All that separates us from the grave is the breath God breathed into us: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” That is all we are: hevel, mere breath. But it is God’s breath.
What eventually killed Hevel was Kayin (Cain). The Torah says explicitly why he was given this name. Chavah said, “I have acquired [kaniti] a man with God.” Kayin means “to acquire, to possess, to own.” In the end, unavoidably, this leads to conflict. Ownership is, in the short term, a zero sum game. The more you have, the less I have. Since we all want more, not less, the result will inevitably be violence, what Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It is this scenario that is currently being played out in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, and other bloodstained arenas throughout the world. It was just such a state that led God, before the flood, to “regret He had created man on earth, and He was pained to His very core.”
That is why, fundamental to the vision set forth in the Torah, is the principle that we own nothing. Everything – the land, its produce, power, sovereignty, children, life itself – belongs to God. We are mere trustees, guardians, on His behalf. We possess but we do not own. That is the basis of the infrastructure of social justice that made the Torah unique in its time and still transformative today.
Kayin means: I am what I own, and what I own gives me power. Cain was the first Nietzschean. His religion was the will to power. That is why God rejected his offering. The sacrifice God accepts, that of Abel/Hevel, is one that comes from the humility of mortality. “Ribono shel Olam, I am mere breath. But it is Your breath I breathe, not mine.” When religion becomes the pursuit of power, the result is bloodshed. To this, God says, “Your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
Even the great Kohelet – Shlomo, whose name means peace – at first sought happiness in what he owned: palaces, gardens, servants, wealth. None of these brought what he hoped for, since none makes us immortal, none defeats death. We remain mere breath. That is why Kohelet in the end finds meaning in the very fact of life itself. He finds joy in simple things: eating, drinking, work, and “seeing life with the woman you love.”
Joy comes not from what we own but from what we are. It comes from the fact that we are alive at all. We serve God by celebrating life, sanctifying life, choosing life. That is why Sukkot follows immediately from the days in which we pray to be written in the book of life. The Sukkah, exposed to the elements, the rain, the wind, the cold, the storm, is the symbol of the vulnerability of life. Yet even so, it is where we celebrate the festival of joy.
The great choice faced by humanity in every age is between the will to power and the will to life. No country in the world today is more eloquent testimony to the will to life than the State of Israel. It represents the collective affirmation of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, “I will not die, but live,” and thus give testimony to the God of life. Almost everything in which Israel has excelled, from agriculture to medicine to life-saving technologies, has been dedicated to enhancing, protecting or defending life.
Surrounding Israel, however, have been countries and cultures willing to sacrifice life to the pursuit of power. The result has been nothing short of devastation for all those caught in its vortex be they Jews, Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, Kurds, or other innocent human beings. The end result will be, as described by Shakespeare:
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Those who worship at the altar of power, in the end destroy themselves.
Sukkot tells us that life is vulnerable, yet it is all we have. We may be mere breath but it is God’s breath and it is sacred. The day will come when the world will see that the will to life must defeat the will to power if we are to survive at all, our humanity intact. Only when this happens will there be peace in the Middle East. Only when this happens will the children of the world have a future of hope.
Until then, we cherish the memory of two beautiful human beings who lived and taught the sanctity of life. May their example live in all our hearts.