Chances are that many of us are familiar only with the section of Ecclesiastes that begins "To everything there is a season," only because we've heard it at a funeral or – thanks to the late Pete Seeger – at a hootenanny. But The Book of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew by the name of its presumptive author, Kohelet, is one of the Bible's five m'gillot read on Festival holidays. Assigned to Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, the Book of Kohelet, also seems the most theologically problematic.
The passionately erotic poetry of Song of Songs is reimagined for Passover as the love between God and Israel. The Book of Ruth, read on Shavuot, ties together the covenant at Sinai with that of the so-called "first convert to Judaism." Many Jews read the mournful Book of Lamentations on Tishah B'Av. And the Book of Esther is, of course, read on Purim, in all its whimsy.
But Kohelet comes from the genre of wisdom literature rather than narrative; it springs from the realm of philosophy rather than history. The author may suggest that we eat, drink, and be merry, but his tone is somber and his view of life is one of ultimate futility. So, if, as the author writes, "God will doom both righteous and wicked (Ecclesiastes 3:17), what's the point?
When the High Holidays end with the closing of the gates at N'ilah on Yom Kippur, we American Jews tend to put away our sense of uncertainty about the future. Yet the same is not true in Israel, as the hot summer turns into what must be a rainy autumn. We may change our seasonal prayer for dew to a prayer for rain in the G'vurot section of the Amidah, but most of us are far removed from the repercussions of natural forces on human life in Israel and in much of the world.
Ecclesiastes allows us to connect with Israel on Sukkot in a visceral way. The emotional uncertainly remains, reinforced now by the uncontrollable physical power of nature. It puts us in our cosmic place, lest we be too complacent about the relative comfort and safety that we enjoy. "A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income. That too is futile," teaches the author. "A worker's sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man's abundance doesn't let him sleep" (Ecclesiates 5:9, 11).
Ecclesiastes, with its theological challenges, thus seems a perfect fit for Sukkot and its mitzvot of physical challenges. Do we sleep sweetly in a sukkah or is it too hard to be away from the soft comfort of our own beds? Do we eat thankfully in a sukkah or are we put off by a little chill or a brief shower? Do we teach our children in the natural space of a sukkah or do we long for the regimentation of the classroom?
But when we try to move beyond creature comforts and make life more meaningful, the author finds, nothing seems to turn out as we plan. After all, we're just concluding our Torah reading cycle with Deuteronomy and its theology that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Kohelet doesn't see it. "A life with a strict correspondence between deed and consequence, virtue and reward, vice and punishment, would make sense," writes Michael V. Fox in the introduction to the JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes. "But Koheleth sees that this does not happen, and he is weighed down by the collapse of meaning, as revealed by the contradictions that pervade life."1 Thus does Kohelet see the world ultimately as hevel, pointless, futile, absurd.
Indeed, in the beginning, Kolelet asks: Mah yitron la-adam b'chol amalo, "What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes?" (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Soncino commentary to Ecclesiastes points out that the word yitron refers to "profit" – as in a surplus in a ledger – and appears nowhere else in Tanach. It suggests that Kohelet starts out with the wrong "criterion by which he tests the value of objects and experiences," 2 and that somehow he expects to be able to show a benefit to life like a profit on a balance sheet. But it seems to me that his is a rhetorical question for which he will build a response that is imperfect but acceptable.
As Fox notes, Kohelet finds no answer for life's absurdity; the best he can do is recommend accommodations to it: "Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen. Sow your seed in the morning, and don't hold back your hand in the evening, since you don't know which is going to succeed" (Ecclesiastes 11:5-6).
Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah takes this to mean that we should make the most of every day, right to the end. The Rabbis give the examples of pursuing work, marriage, family, and the study of Torah, late in life as well as in youth – but we can apply the same principle to any pursuit. Live life to the fullest, they say, as though today might be your last and "sun and light and moon and stars grow dark" (Ecclesiastes 12:2).
Rather than a message of futility, this reads as a message of hope: Even if we cannot make sense of life in some grand cosmic sense, we can find purpose and satisfaction in the tasks of daily life. We can create, and we can share; we can heal, and we can love. Maybe it's not all that we would like, for as long as we would like. But God provides us with "a time for every experience under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
Michael V. Fox, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), p. 25
Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, ed., The Five Megilloth with Hebrew Text & English Translation (London: The Soncino Press, Ltd. 1996), p. 109
It is all useless, Kohelet said, it is all useless. Everything is useless. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)1
Reading this first verse we might wonder about the mental health of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, also known as Kohelet, who is presumed to be the book's author. How much more depressing can it get than to be told all of life is useless? Kohelet urges us to enjoy the moment – to eat, drink, and be merry – yet the overall tone of the book highlights the author's concern that all of life is futile.
As Rabbi Korotkin points out, "When the High Holidays end with the closing of the gates at N'ilah on Yom Kippur, we American Jews tend to put away our sense of uncertainty about the future." However, traditionally, the season of atonement and forgiveness does not end with the shofar blast during N'ilah, it continues through Sukkot and Simchat Torah. For our ancestors the goal was to be as blameless as possible before asking God for rain, because the rain ultimately defined survival.
On the High Holidays, we include the prayer Un'taneh Tokef, which presents the theology that those who have done good will live and those who are evil will be punished. Kohelet is one of the first sources to struggle with this theology. He understands that the world is not fair and that suffering and misfortune can befall the righteous and wicked alike. What happens when our basic assumptions about the world are challenged? One possibility is for us to despair and question the usefulness of our lives, our purpose, and our faith: to become Kohelet. We are given reassurance that we are not the first people to have struggled and to have questioned. We are Yisrael – the ones who struggle with God.
In keeping with Jewish practice, the public reading of Ecclesiastes ends with a repetition of the second to last verse of the book in order to end on a more positive note: "The last word, everything having been said and done: Revere God and keep the commandments, for this applies to every person."2 We may struggle and we may despair, but this is part of the human condition. Kohelet reminds us that others have struggled before us and there are times when we will not have the answers and we simply must have faith.
As translated in Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, eds., Kohelet: A Modern Commentary on Ecclesiastes, (New York: UAHC Press, 2003), p. 1
Ibid, p. 125
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512