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What’s Wrong With Ecclesiastes (aka Qohelet)? – Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot 5782

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכׇ֨ל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃
הוֹלֵךְ֙ אֶל־דָּר֔וֹם וְסוֹבֵ֖ב אֶל־צָפ֑וֹן סוֹבֵ֤ב ׀ סֹבֵב֙ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הָר֔וּחַ וְעַל־סְבִיבֹתָ֖יו שָׁ֥ב הָרֽוּחַ׃
כׇּל־הַנְּחָלִים֙ הֹלְכִ֣ים אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וְהַיָּ֖ם אֵינֶ֣נּוּ מָלֵ֑א אֶל־מְק֗וֹם שֶׁ֤הַנְּחָלִים֙ הֹֽלְכִ֔ים שָׁ֛ם הֵ֥ם שָׁבִ֖ים לָלָֽכֶת׃
כׇּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים יְגֵעִ֔ים לֹא־יוּכַ֥ל אִ֖ישׁ לְדַבֵּ֑ר לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֥ע עַ֙יִן֙ לִרְא֔וֹת וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵ֥א אֹ֖זֶן מִשְּׁמֹֽעַ׃ מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶ֔ה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כׇּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

Utter futility!—said Qohelet— Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a person / In all the gains one makes beneath the sun?
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.
Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind;
On its rounds the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full;
To the place from which they flow / The streams flow back again.
All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them;
The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing.
Only that shall happen / Which has happened,
Only that occur / Which has occurred;
There is nothing new / Beneath the sun!

Qohelet / Ecclesiastes 1:2-9

***

What’s the problem with Qohelet?

First, while some might point to this passage and see nihilism, that is, the idea that everything is meaningless, that our actions do not matter, that there are no objective truths or morality or values, that is actually not Qohelet’s philosophy. 

Others have suggested that Qohelet is the original existentialist, meaning that our individual choices are solely ours, the responsibility and consequences thereof are solely ours, and the universe is more or less indifferent to them. This is also not an accurate description of Qohelet’s world view.

When Qohelet says, “Havel havalim, hakol havel,” Utter futility! All is futility, he is not saying that everything is meaningless. What he is saying, rather, is that our actions matter, but not in a way that we could possibly understand. And for sure, we will be called to account for our actions, but we may not ever know why, so we should be grateful for what we have and enjoy it, even as life continues to slip past unnoticed.

He is actually in good company with the anonymous author of the book of Iyyov / Job, who, when he finally challenges God, gets the most unsatisfying response ever. God’s retort to Job is effectively, “Be quiet! Who are you to tell Me what I can do or not do? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?”

I have never been a “The-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways” kind of rabbi, nor have I ever really sought any kind of consistent understanding of God. 

However, the approach of Qohelet and Iyyov, which further obscure the way that God works, is especially problematic. It flies in the face of the most prominent piece of practical theology in Jewish life: the framework of 613 mitzvot, the berit, the covenant we have with God, in which we keep those mitzvot, and God provides us with life and sustenance and joy and love and meaning. If our job, at least according to how we read the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep those mitzvot, then it cannot be that our actions are not at all related to our fates.

Right?

Didn’t we just get through Yom Kippur, pouring our hearts into our fervent prayer and pursuing teshuvah because, as Rambam tells us (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4), we are supposed to see our lives in this period as hanging in the balance? That we have a number of merits, that is, mitzvot completed properly in their time and place, in the “black” column that is exactly equal to the number of transgressions indicated in the “red” column? That all we need to do is one more mitzvah than sin during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, to get a tiny nudge into the Book of Life?

That is why the ancient rabbis did not like Qohelet. There is actually a debate in the Talmud about whether or not Qohelet is actually a holy book (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5), compared to all the other books of the Tanakh.

But I am of the opinion that Qohelet is not only essential to Jewish life, it might actually be the most important work in the entire Tanakh.

Why? Because, while Qohelet might appear to contradict some other essential principles of Jewish life, he is also one voice out of many. And that is essential because we are not, and never have been, completely unified on any particular matter, including our understanding of how God functions. On the contrary: Qohelet provides a needed contrarian voice, one that subverts the “party line.” 

One of the traditions we have on Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, inviting ancient guests into our sukkah during our meals every evening. It is a kabbalistic tradition which draws on our understanding of the positive traits of our classical forebears, traits which we desire to emulate. Qohelet is not typically one of them. But consider this picture of some of those Biblical characters (although perhaps this is the wrong image, but I’m kind of picturing a Jewish version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper)*:

  • At the table we find Avraham, who is faithful enough to very nearly sacrifice his own son when God demands this. And yet he also challenges God, when God intends to destroy Sedom and ‘Amorah. 
  • And here is Sarah, who, though righteous and wise, laughs when she receives a divine message that she will have a child. 
  • Here is clever Rivkah, who carries out God’s word through deception. 
  • And here is hapless Isaac, who never takes the initiative and is always acted upon. 
  • And here is Moshe Rabbeinu, who receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, has an anger management problem, and also argues with God not to destroy the Israelites following the Molten Calf episode. 
  • Here is Miriam, who finds water whenever the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and leads the women in song, but also engages in slander of her brother Moshe and is punished for it. 
  • Here is Devorah the Judge, who leads the troops in battle, 
  • And here is Yael, a brutal assassin masquerading as a gentle homemaker. 
  • Here is Yonah, who runs away from God but is given a second chance, and still doesn’t quite “get it.” 
  • And here is David Melekh Yisrael, who captures Jerusalem, but steals the wife of Uriah and then has him killed.

And over at the far end, Qohelet. Sitting there, wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises while looking all smug, saying, Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashemesh. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve seen this movie before. Don’t think you’re all so holy. Qohelet is really the only philosopher in the whole Tanakh. He does not care for dogma – he’s really all about the questions of why we do the things we do, a completely understandable Jewish activity.

And by the way, the JPS commentary tells me that Qohelet is likely not even a name, but rather a title, something like the town crier. The word is related to the Hebrew root q-h-l, meaning to gather or convoke, just like the titular word in Parashat Vayaqhel, in which Moshe convokes the Israelites for instruction on how to observe Shabbat. So this Qohelet, our Qohelet, is this figure that brings the Israelites together to discuss the transience of life and the futility of understanding God, as if in some ancient intellectual salon.

You see? Qohelet fits right in. He is as complicated as all the other human characters in the Jewish bookshelf. Why is he not in the regular list of Ushpizin invitees? Sure, so his philosophy is not necessarily what we want to hear, and contradicts in some sense the standard theology of the Torah. But when have you known the Jews to agree on anything, particularly God?

We need Qohelet because his voice is actually, sometimes, our voice. Maybe that is where we are today, with the sense of futility that occasionally marks our lives. No matter how good or bad our behavior, no matter our choices, we cannot deny that the sun will come up tomorrow, that some people will be born and some will die, that some of us will thrive and some will suffer. And no matter how pious or skeptical we are, we understand that we have no control.

I would like to think that just as there is a little Avraham, a little Moshe, a little Miriam and a little Yael in all of us, so too is there a generous portion of Qohelet. This town crier might just be crazy, but he might also be onto something: that as we go from holiday to holiday, from year to year, keeping mitzvot or missing the mark, expressing gratitude or asking for forgiveness or watching our children and grandchildren grow and learn and struggle and succeed, that we remember that this is how life goes, and we have to enjoy it if we can, while we can.

And I am grateful for his presence in my Tanakh.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/25/2021.)

* Not all of these characters appear in all Ushpizin lists (and I don’t think Yonah appears in any). Nonetheless, they might all be included as potential Sukkot invitees.

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