People argue over the message of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) which we read during Sukkot. Scholars are all over the map when it comes to what the overall message and theme of Qohelet is. Let’s face it, it’s a head-scratcher. One does have to ask the question “why was this book canonized?” Then add the additional question of “why do we read this book during Sukkot?”
The latter question may be easier to answer. However you choose to interpret the themes and meanings of Qohelet, it’s not a happy-happy-joy-joy sort of book, and, as such, it becomes a perfect balance for Sukkot, zma’an simkhateinu, the season of our joy. (Of course, Sukkot already has plenty within it to provide that balance on its own. Our joyous celebration contrasts with the fragility that is represented and exemplified by the sukkah.)
As to the former question, the answer has a lot to do with how you understand and interpret the messages and meanings of Qohelet. After decades of wrestling with Qohelet, I think I finally get it, at least in a way that works for me. More on that later.
The scholarly cynic in me accepts the notion that an ending was tacked on to the book, and an obviously false connection was made by the rabbis of the Talmud between the book and King Solomon. These two actions made the book acceptable as part of the Hebrew Bible canon. (To this day, people will defend the idea that Qohelet was authored by Solomon tooth and nail. To give up this belief makes it all that much harder for them to understand why this book is in the Tanakh at all.)
Qohelet is troubled that life doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes the good die young and the wicked prosper. Sometimes justice isn’t just. Qohelet doesn’t have any big answers or grand theology. He (though he certainly could be a she) offers some small, practical suggestions on how to deal with life’s inanities, and how to navigate through life. There are some behaviors and choices he views as sensible, despite the insanity and seeming meaningless of life a life devoid of coherence.
The Hebrew of Qohelet is difficult. The text at times seems to contradict itself (but since when has that not been a biblical trait?) Perhaps the author of Qohelet was the Ionesco, the Beckett, the Albee of the time. Life is, indeed, a theater of the absurd. In fact, a better translation of the Hebrew word הֶבֶל hevel, all too often translated in Qohelet as “vanity” would be “absurd.”
If you have not read Qohelet, do so. It’s a quick read. While I’m not crazy about the translation, Mechon-Mamre offers this version online http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt3101.htm. It’s a place to start, though I definitely recommending finding and reading other translations (or, better yet, gain the tools needed to read and understand/interpret it in the original Hebrew for yourself.) I could easily pick a few choice quotes for you but I do think the book needs to be appreciated and understood as a whole. I think reading Qohelet will raise lots of question for you. Even if you are thoroughly familiar with it, read it again. What do you think the author’s themes and messages are?
I have my own theories (and they change with each re-reading, of course.) However, the insight that came to me in writing this wasn’t about what Qohelet’s message or over-arching theme might be. It was an insight about myself that revealed to me a way to looking at Qohelet. Like me, Qohelet is a gadfly.
First, Qohelet gain our trust. Qohelet’s observations about life often seem on the mark to us, because they often parallel our own experiences, Who of us has not been puzzled by questions of theodicy, of the absurdity and unfairness of life? So Qohelet has us in his corner. We’re inclined to agree with him, find some truth in his aphorisms. Then, he surprises us with a zinger. Or, sometimes, Qohelet will portray an issue from two differing viewpoints, making us believe. at the time we encounter each of the opposing views, that that author is a proponent of that view. (Or, at the very least, that the author is of a mixed mind on the subject.) What happens when we encounter Qohelet saying something that contradicts something said earlier by Qohelet, or stated elsewhere in Torah or Tanakh? We stop and take a look. We may even find ourselves analyzing a question from a viewpoint we had never before considered. This is one reason I think it is important to view the book of Qohelet as a whole (and even within its context as part of Tanakh.)
Qohelet goads us into thinking about things. That’s what gadfly-types do. If this wasn’t intentional on the part of Qohelet’s author, it was surely somewhat intentional on the part of those who finally saw fit to included it in the canon. (I also believe a lot of the Torah is deliberately goading with its inconsistencies.)
I don’t think Qohelet had any real conclusions, just some keen observations, reflections, and the intent to get all of us to reflect as well, on life, and its absurdities. Qohelet and I are kindred spirits. Yes, I write sometimes, perhaps as Qohelet did, to help me clarify my own thoughts and understandings, and try to find some coherence in them. More often than not I write to get you, my reader, to think, to reflect, to consider, to argue, to agree, to disagree, to examine, etc. Though, truth be told, we gadfly-types are often serving as our own gadfly. Complacency is a trap in which we can all to easily become ensnared. By forcing myself to sometimes posit understandings or viewpoints that might not be my own belief or understanding (at that moment) I keep myself from falling into complacency.
Let’s not pretend. Qohelet is, in the rawest terms, an anti-Deity screed (except for the little bit tagged on at the end.) Qohelet is not letting G”d off the hook. Qohelet is openly questioning whether G”d is good, and whether G”d always stands up for goodness. (At least, I believe these are valid possible interpretations of Qohelet.) The little tag at the end notwithstanding, what was the value that the rabbis found in this book that they kept it in the canon?
Look, I’ll be honest. Deep inside of me is a yearning for life to have meaning, and for me to have at least a glimpse of what that meaning might be. A desire for a G”d that is not capricious, and that doesn’t hide behind ineffability. A desire for a Universe that makes sense, in which the righteous are rewarded and evil is not. A universe in which the wise are not pompous and the less wise are not so certain in their ignorance. So, like Qohelet, I am frustrated by reality. Like Qohelet, the best thing I can do about it is to think about it, to write about it. So I do.
Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’simchah,
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: