On Shabbat Chol Hamoed, we have the custom to read Megillat Kohelet, said to be written by Shlomo Hamelech. The choice to read this Megillah on this holiday full of happiness stirs up many mixed emotions. There are four other Megillot in Tanach to read, but we choose this one. The central element is found in the Pasuk which asks, “Mah Yitron Leadam Bechol Amalo Sheyaamol Tachat Hashemesh,“ (Kohelet 12:13) what is man’s purpose in this world? The Pasuk then answers, “Sof Davar Hakol Nishma; Et Haelokim Yirah Veet Mitzvotav Shmor Ke Zeh Kol Haadam,” (ibid.) that our purpose is to fear God and keep his Mitzvot. However, this is a seemingly contradictory theme to the Simcha we’re supposed to feel on Sukkot. Why do we choose to read this very intense, almost depressing Megillah on this joyous holiday?
The tension between the commandment of happiness and Kohelet’s negative evaluation of rejoicing is also seen in a bitter exchange between David Hamelech and his wife Michal in Shmuel II 6:16. The queen criticizes David’s dancing as the Aron Kodesh was being brought to Jerusalem, comparing it to the behavior of the servants. David responds that since he was rejoicing “before Hashem” not only was the way he conducted himself appropriate, but that he felt compelled to even go further in the future. Was David or Michal correct? Should the king have held back from his Simcha or continued to dance because this was accepted appropriate before Hashem? Are the words of Kohelet meant to limit our happiness on Yom Tov or should we continue to rejoice before Hashem?
An explanation was offered by R’ Aryeh Leb from the Pasuk of “Vihayita Ach Sameach,” “and you will be only joyous” (Devarim 16:15), in order to show that there is no real conflict between the Torah and the Simcha of Sukkot. He suggests that the word “Ach“, “only,” implies to a limitation in one’s happiness on the holiday of Sukkot, to hold one back for overindulging in the obligation to be joyous on this holiday. Sefer Kohelet works together with the word “Ach” to serve as a reminder that we have the obligation to be happy, while still observing Torah and Mitzvot. It would appear that Simchat Yom Tov is a symbol of the two dimensions of the human being, the spiritual and the physical. While separating these areas might not be what we want, when we do that, at least there are times when we can be assured that we are engaged in the proper spiritual pursuits. Chag “Ach” Sameach!