I write this in my Sukkah, wearing my intellectual sleeping cap and bunny slippers, as the birds chirp all around on this glorious first morning of Chol Hamoed.
Why, oh why, would Jews choose to read Koheles, Ecclesiastes, most nihilistic of all twenty-four scriptures, during a festival of joy? Granted, it is not my custom; Chabad does not put an emphasis of reading it during Sukkos. But on the other hand, I do not cynically believe (outside of some rather good jokes) that some other Jews don’t want to be happy. On the contrary, I love Koheles, and if I won’t be reading it with attendant weeping in my airy booth of immense holiness, I will at least take a moment to reflect on its abiding mysteries and its author.
If you didn’t know, Koheles is a book about how everything is purposeless and achieves nothing. Like another of King Solomon’s works (more on that below) it came off as somewhat unreligious at the meeting to decide which holy works should become canonical Jewish scripture, and like that other work, it was rescued because of its subtle redeeming qualities. (One notes that this is often the case with great geniuses with revolutionary ideas — their perspective is so lofty and removed that it often seems they are not contributing to the thing at all but are rather out just to tear everything down, and only with time does everyone else catch up and realize how great they were. On the other hand, sometimes they are just out to tear everything down and by the time you pierce through the intellectual fog everything is already destroyed. Distinguishing, as non-geniuses, between these types is a matter of great importance, unless you believe in Koheles, in which case it’s as empty and pointless as most human endeavors.) The non-subtle theme of Koheles is laid out at the beginning – Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, etc. And its redemptive quality is its penultimate verse: At the end of the day, once everything is heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is all man is.
That last line could just be a band-aid, a one-off easy answer to the insurmountable question of the gaping void. But it could also be an aikido throw, a sudden reversal of momentum that puts the rest of Koheles on its back by grounding the multifarious emptiness of the human endeavor upon a rock-solid, eternal foundation. Which isn’t too far-fetched; indeed, all of the ancient arguments for the existence of G-d rest upon the similar recognition of the baselessness of everything we see set before us, and the need at every moment for something to blow life into all of these powerless forms.
But this, too, seems off, since Solomon was surely a religious man at the outset of Koheles just as he was at its conclusion. Why, then, does he not brandish the easy religious answers to the meaning of various worldly pursuits? Could he not stop himself halfway through and reassure us with a wink that man conquers the world at the behest of the True and Eternal G-d, that our love is a function of His? Perhaps the wisest of men knows that we need all pretense of hope stripped away before he relents and finally tosses us a life preserver.
But perhaps it’s not as dark as all that (and besides, such a rendering leaves a holy book of the Tanach as more of a one-time performance than a pillar of reality that is always true). I, for one, like to think of Koheles as Shlomo HaMelech extending us a helping hand. Rather than allowing us to languish in our preconceptions of meaning and the small words we’re convinced hold huge concepts, he allows us, any time we’re willing to accompany him, to break free of those limits and approach one step closer to the divine. What we think is worthwhile is, indeed, meaningless from a higher point of view, and there is always a higher point of view, infinite ranks of them stretching toward the unreachable creator. “At the end of the day, when all is heard, fear G-d” is not a reversal on the despair of the previous chapters, but rather its natural conclusion, the moment when we break free of the atmosphere of the burning earth and find out it’s not all there was after all.
Just as one forgoes home and creature comforts once a year, and remembers how even in the elements G-d protects his people.
Just as one trades in, yearly, the comfortable understanding that wine represents to drink the water of simple men, simple faith, of not understanding.
Just as one could find, once a year, in the Temple, the wisest of sages juggling branches before the people, having abandoned all their meanings.
If I recall correctly, the accompanying emotion of that festival was not despair.
These mysteries are not simplified by King Solomon’s other immortal works, the Song of Songs and the Book of Proverbs. The former, an erotic love poem, slipped into the Tanach only on the insistence of Rabbi Akiva that it is the holy of holies, a statement as wrapped in mystery as the specific nature of the King’s allegory. The man is G-d and the woman are the Jewish people, but what is this intimate love that exists between them, their motions of approach and retreat, the seemingly mystical nature of their union?
Proverbs, on the other hand, is neither ecstatic nor despondent but a sober series of aphorisms and snippets of advice for the man who must live practically in this world. Gone are hints of the byzantine machine-elf workings of the divine bliss and the vast void of punishing unbeing and in their place we have dating advice and business tips. On the other hand, “Proverbs” is really a bad translation of “Mishlei,” more accurately implying “Analogies,” which indicates that there’s more here than first meets the eye…
Who was the King Solomon who wrote these books? Was he the young king with many wives, powerful and wealthy and wise beyond measure? Did Solomon look around at his father’s Kingdom in his youth and sneer at the foolish pursuits of man? Perhaps he grew older and plied matters of home and kingdom with the practical wisdom we find in Proverbs, before mellowing in his dotage to focus on the love at the center of all things as enshrined in Song of Songs?
Or perhaps Koheles is the name of the old king, his Temple already built and his majesty inscribed for all time, who looked over his deeds as his sun was setting and found every avenue ending in emptiness and despair. As he wrote his sad lament of his wasted time, perhaps he remembered his industrious middle age when he wrote his Proverbs and the inflamed passions of his youth that drove him to pen the Song.
Are either of these portraits of the wisest man to have ever lived?
Perhaps the easiest lesson for us to draw from his works, without needing to approach his genius, is that King Solomon was a Jew, and that a Jew is complicated. The simplest lesson of the Lulav that all the kids learn in school is that each species represents a different type, and that we need all of them to fulfill the Mitzvah.
Perhaps for the Tanach to be complete, we needed to meet a Jew who was insanely in love with G-d, and a Jew utterly despairing of his entire life, and a Jew surmounting with practical wisdom all obstacles in his path, and to know that they are the same man, that all of these things are the way.
Even if we can’t untangle them, neither in the text nor in our own hearts, at least we are in good company. As the old chassidim said, “If we are to be crazy, it’s good to be together.”
Our species joins with three others, and together we are the will of G-d.