ECCLESIASTES AND US

The world seems to be coming apart. Massive fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and elsewhere in California represent the latest “disaster of the week.” Fortunately, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon (died 931 BCE) and probably written 600 years later, offers us the strength to endure.

We’re tempted, of course, to declare that things have never been this bad. But we—and every generation preceding us—have experienced trying times. The book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet—gatherer/teacher/preacher) reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

One of five “scrolls” in the Hebrew Bible along with Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Jonah, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Ecclesiastes often is viewed as negative and cynical. Not so, according to scholars. They include Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a hillside community in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Last Monday night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner talk by Rabbi Feinstein. He broke down the text of Ecclesiastes to offer several heartening concepts. Importantly, Rabbi Feinstein never claimed his views were conclusive; Jews question, answer then question again.

Ecclesiastes advises that life and our various accomplishments and sufferings amount only to hevel—a puff of air, a mist, a transitory matter. Moreover, death awaits us all. Neither pleasure, riches, wisdom nor righteousness alter that. Equally disturbing if not more so, good people often suffer, while bad people often attain wealth and fame. (The book of Job offers another exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.)

Does this paint a portrait of humanity too glum to bear? No. Ecclesiastes counsels, in this translation by my friend Dan Weiss and his study partner Israel Amrani: “I praise joy / Nothing is better for man under the sun / than to eat and to drink and to be joyful” (8:15). Let’s put this in perspective: Ecclesiastes does not extol gluttony, drunkenness and sexual indulgence. These, too, are hevel.

Rather, Ecclesiastes states that for everything there is a season. (Now you know the source for the Pete Seeger song covered by the Byrds.) We experience good. We also suffer, as do so many Americans now in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. Basically, life happens. For the most part, we can’t control it. The world—indeed, the universe—is too big and complex. The best we can do is enjoy what we can while we can. As my mother, Blanche taught me: “You have to take the good times with the bad.”

We find additional hope in what this book does not say, according to Rabbi Feinstein. Ecclesiastes sees the world in the guise of a lone figure without family and friends (although not without wives and concubines). Family and community make a difference. While our lives are finite, we achieve a semblance of immortality—of something lasting—when we teach our children and others, display love and cultivate friendships. In Jewish tradition, we “live” so long as we are remembered.

I offer this final summary of Ecclesiastes paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, the great sage of 2,000 years ago: Life crushes the ego. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Rabbi Jessica Graf and Cantor David Frommer will present Ecclesiastes today (Friday), noon–2 pm for Congregational Sherith Israel’s Prime Time Club for people 65 and older. Complementary lunch is provided. While food has been ordered, we always find room for a few more people, members and nonmembers.

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4 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Oct 13, 2017

    It seems to me that our eternal dilemma is a lack of power to change the certain vicissitudes of life (read: shit happens). Fortunately, our cannon gives us a guidebook to find access to power to live well within the world despite nutbag presidents, terrorism, natural disasters, and the fact that the Dodgers are still alive in the playoffs.

    Gut shabbos.


    • David
      Oct 13, 2017

      This is so, Tracy. It also leaves us with many questions, as we will find out tomorrow morning as I lead Torah Study in pursuit of “7 Mysteries of Creation.”


  2. Vernon Miles Kerr
    Oct 22, 2017

    I spent 25 years in a fundamentalist “Christian” church whose founder gave the Tanakh equal weight with the New Testament. We kept the 7th day Sabbath and all of the High Holy Days but not Christmas, Easter, etc. While reading your post, I thought of another very famous quote from Ecclesiastes … “and the sun also rises.” It’s interesting that Yom Kippur->Sukkot is sort of like a reverse of the Catholics’ Mardi Gras->Lent. It seems more logical to do the atonement first then you really enjoy the Feast. We always did. 🙂


    • David
      Oct 22, 2017

      Vernon, I always find it interesting when Christian groups “go back” to Jewish tradition, but that is the foundation for Christianity. You make a good observation about the reversals of Yom Kippur–Sukkoth and Mardi Gras–Lent. These represent, perhaps, fundamental differences regarding repentance and forgiveness. In Judaism, one cannot simply say “I’m sorry” and go on as before. Repentance requires recognizing the wrongdoing, vowing not to do it and then not doing it. I’m not casting aspersions on confession in Catholicism or accepting Jesus among Protestants, but Judaism takes any vow to repent with a grain of salt until the evidence established by proper living comes in.

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