A fitting book
September 30, 2009
The Bible has five special books known as the megillot, or scrolls. Esther is read at Purim, the Song of Songs at Pesach, Ruth on Shavuot, and Lamentations on Tisha B’Av.
The fifth scroll, the Book of Ecclesiastes — Kohelet — is read during Sukkot. “Kohelet” means something like “convoker” and is probably not a proper name.
We are not certain at what point in Jewish history it became the custom to read Kohelet on Sukkot, but the book fits the season and holiday.
Sukkot is a time of harvest and ingathering, and much of Kohelet seems to be written from the vantage point of one who has seen many seasons and is now beginning to sum up. Sukkot comes at a time of the year when seasonal changes mark the inevitable cycle of growth and decay, and much of Kohelet is a reflection on the meaning of life lived within the boundaries of birth and death.
Kohelet is perhaps best known for its third chapter, which begins: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven, a time to be born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what has been planted.”
But a more somber mood pervades Kohelet. The literature of the Torah speaks of the covenant between God and Israel and new things that will come to pass. The prophets emphasize moral improvement and speak of the messianic future. Kohelet, in contrast, states: “Utter futility…utter futility! All is futile. What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes under the sun? Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has already occurred; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Kohelet 1:1-3, 9)
Given its tone of resignation, it is not surprising to discover debate among early rabbinic authorities as to whether Kohelet should have been included as sacred scripture.
The rabbis who completed the compilation of the Bible were aware that authorship of Kohelet was traditionally assigned to the wise King Solomon.
Solomon is alleged to have written two other biblical books: the (also controversial) erotic love poem “The Song of Songs” and the collection known as Proverbs. This attribution no doubt made it more difficult for the rabbis to repress Kohelet, for who could imagine King Solomon preaching heresy?
Kohelet also seems to have been the beneficiary of some unanticipated assistance from a later editor. The seeming end is: “And the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it. Utter futility, said Kohelet, all is futile!” (12:7-8)
But then the text clumsily continues: “A further word: Because Kohelet was a sage, he continued to instruct the people…. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments.” (12:13)
This obvious attempt by a later writer to put a “good ending” on an otherwise somber and stoic book illustrates the struggle that tradition had with what came before.
Notwithstanding such efforts, and despite the attribution to Solomon, the presence of Kohelet in the Bible is more likely a consequence of the power of its words. For in his evocative questioning, Kohelet legitimates and validates those moments we all experience when our efforts seem futile, when nothing seems to change, when we feel that what we have struggled for may not be worth the struggle.
To live up to the demands of the Torah and the challenges of the prophets is the essence of Judaism. But there are going to be moments when it just seems too hard to go on. At those times, how comforting it is to know that even King Solomon had those moments, that they can be endured, and that they will, it is hoped, lead to a renewed commitment to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.