Are we in a holiday of joy and happiness or one of impermanence and futility? Are we to follow the injunction for Succoth – v’samachta b’chagecha – be joyful in your holiday – or of the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) that is traditionally read on chol hamoed Succoth, with its insistence that all is hevel – either vanity or a puff of breath, meaning impermanence? Or is it both?
According to Rabbi Benjamin Segal, Kohelet is not philosophy. It reflects its author’s search for verifiable truths about life. It was written by someone called Kohelet, toward the end of the biblical period (about 300-200 BCE, as determined by the language of the text, and not really by King Solomon). Rabbi Rami Shapiro calls it the “most honest book in the Bible,” and a “true guide” for us in the 21st century.
For most of us, what we know about Kohelet is that all is vanity (or a puff of air), and that for every thing under heaven there is a season (popularized in the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”). It is often viewed as a paean to the futility of everything in life, from pleasures of the body to wisdom of the mind – the disillusioned rantings of a person in old age who has found that nothing he has done has meaning, nothing has given him lasting pleasure.
Rabbis Segal and Shapiro disagree. According to Segal, the book is not philosophy but rather a quest for absolutes in a world of doubt and contradiction. Why do the good suffer and the bad succeed? Why do we seek knowledge when we’re going to die like the most ignorant peasant? If we accept the idea that the book is a search, then a pattern of growth becomes visible and we realize that Kohelet does not try to answer questions, only to raise them.
According to Rabbi Shapiro, Kohelet sees life as a series of moments flowing one into the next. This does not imply a lack of meaning but rather that life is fluid. The tide flows in and the tide flows out. Is this meaningless? Not if the purpose of the tide is to flow!
So Kohelet’s world has a purpose – to flow from one moment to another. As Shapiro says, there is no meaning to life, life itself is meaningful. And living well in Kohelet’s world means knowing what moment you are in. Should I be laughing now or crying? Loving or hating? And one moment isn’t better than another. Laughter happens and tears happen and love happens and hate happens. That’s life.
According to Segal, Kohelet goes through three phases in his search for meaning, and if we understand this, we can perceive the reason for the seeming contradictions in the text – death is better than life (he says early on) and life is better than death (he says later on).
In the first phase of the search, we see a king who has everything but still yearns for satisfaction. In the second, he becomes a wandering observer, concluding that the good life is one that seeks enjoyment. In the final section, Kohelet offers some retrospective thoughts as he approaches death.
Each phase shows change. For example, at first he dismisses enjoyment as the best avenue to life. Later he appreciates it and finally he recommends that we seek it. He begins by relying on his own ability to understand the world but eventually comes to the conclusion that no one understands it. His earlier negative view of women morphs into the advice to seek out and marry a woman you love.
With these changes, certain words and phrases are phased out. The “anguish” (re’ut ru’ach) and the “advantage” (yitron) repeated in the early part disappear halfway through. The pronoun “I” dissipates like a puff of air toward the end. With each step forward, Kohelet grows more trustful of received traditions, more open to compromise, and more suspicious of his early observations.
But these early observations remain embedded in our consciousness. The unfairness or lack of symmetry that we may perceive around us – such as bad things for good people and vice versa – doesn’t disappear just because Kohelet says they don’t matter. What Kohelet says is that we have to accept them as facts of life and move on.
According to Rabbi Shapiro, these messages of going with the flow, of seizing the moment, of forgoing the Biblical reliance on “jealous and violent gods, corruptible clergy and kings, jingoistic tribalism, and xenophobic ethnicity” (in his words) is why Kohelet is so suitable for our time.
This is a subversive message in Biblical terms, and explains why the rabbis debated whether to include Kohelet in the canon. Perhaps that’s also why they added the coda in chapter 12 (v.13-14):
“When all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind.” In other words, they are saying, everything you just read is fake news. Whether it is or not – is for each of us to decide after we read the text.
I hope that we can all flow through the coming year, one in which laughter exceeds tears, love exceeds hate and peace overcomes strife.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach