At Sukkot, it is traditional to study the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The original reason for this tradition is mysterious — as is the book of Kohelet, penned by an unknown author in an unusual style.
The author says, “I, Kohelet, am a wise, wealthy king in Jerusalem.” One might identify Kohelet with King Solomon, but the book’s language is half a millennium too modern, and Kohelet is too critical of royal justice.
The book of Kohelet has no story; no characters except the narrator; no discussion of the history of Israel or the future of the Jews; and no role for revelation. It encourages us to observe life and create meaning for ourselves. Some read pessimism in this teaching; others see optimism.
Here are some of the words that frame the book, beginning and end.
The words of Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Havel Havalim, said Kohelet. Utterly insubstantial! All is insubstantial.
What yitron, real value, is there for a human in the gains he or she makes beneath the sun? (1:1-3)
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. (1:5-6)
I observed all the happenings beneath the sun and I found that all is hevel, futile, and re’ut ruach, pursuit of wind. (1:14)
My thoughts turned to appraising chochma, wisdom, as well as madness and folly. I found that chochma, wisdom, has more yitron, more profit, than folly, as light is more profitable than darkness. A chacham, a wise person, has eyes in her head, whereas a fool walks in darkness. But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both. Alas, the chacham, the wise person, dies, just like the fool. And sometimes a person she’amalo, who toiled, with chochma, wisdom, knowledge and skill, must hand it on to be the chelek, portion, of someone who did not amal, toil, for it. (2:12-14, 16, 21)
There is nothing worthwhile for a person except to eat and drink and and enjoy amalo, his toil. Even that, I noted, comes from God. (2:24)
Last week, in our course on Wisdom Literature, I studied Kohelet with our mostly Christian students at the Vancouver School of Theology.
“What wisdom does Kohelet offer?” I asked.
Trevor said, “God is at work, but we cannot exactly know God’s plan.”
Tuyvec said, “We see only what is finite, but God’s wisdom is infinite.”
Glenn said, “Learn to live within your limitations.”
Vikki said, “When we are in right relationship with reality, we are in right relationship with God.”
Linda said, “We come to know God through reasoned investigation into life.”
Kirstin said, “Wow, these interpretations are really subjective!”
“Thank you Kirstin,” I said, “for that perfect segue into a deeper look!”
“Yes,” I continued, “there are more and less subjective ways to interpret texts. We just used a subjective, reader-centered method. We allowed the text to trigger spiritual musings. And we understood our musings to be the message of the text.
“Let’s try something a bit more scientific, and examine Kohelet on his or her own terms. While we don’t know Kohelet’s identity, time, or place, we can literally look at Kohelet’s terms.
“Kohelet uses a special vocabulary to express her or his philosophy. A few favorite words appear more in Kohelet than in any book of the Tanakh. Let’s identify those words, examine them in context, and draw conclusions. What philosophical teaching is presented through each word?”
Here are our findings.
Chelek refers to our portion in life; Yitron is the profit we derive from it. For Kohelet, the value of our portion and the quality of our profit is measured by our attitude.
Amal describes all our toil, on the physical, emotional and intellectual levels. Because our toil brings no lasting result, says Kohelet, the best way to derive value is to enjoy life’s tasks for what they are.
Chochma is wisdom. Wisdom, Kohelet teaches, is powerful, but not infinite. Empirical observation and analysis teach us about life, but we cannot know everything.
Hevel means breath or vapour. Ruach means wind and spirit. Re’ut ruach is the activity of chasing wind or chasing spirit. Life, says Kohelet, is breath, an unending pursuit of ruach. All life is animated by spirit.
Thus, Kohelet teaches:
Be aware; spirit surrounds you.
Keep your eyes and your mind open.
Accept every present moment as a gift.
Work for the good of the world, even though achievements are temporary.
That’s how one lives well on this planet under the sun.
More about Kohelet at the following links:
Translations of Kohelet adapted by me from NJPS. Scholarly guidance on Kohelet’s terms from Michael V. Fox, Ecclesiastes: The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia: 2004). Image: rockymoutainvapor.com