Posts Tagged ‘Kohelet’

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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THE YEAR OF LISTENING

During the Jewish month of Elul (August/September) leading to the recent High Holy Days, I made a semi-resolution. The Sages caution against making vows and for good reason, so I avoided going that far. But I determined to try to be a more attentive listener. That’s a challenge.

I took inspiration from Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) 4:1 attributed to Ben Zoma: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” So often, we only pretend to listen to others while our mental wheels spin on and on. We hear words, but the thoughts and intentions behind them don’t register. We’re too engrossed in googling our minds for ways either to refute the speaker or demonstrate that we know more.

Many people, myself included, love to engage in forms of mental gymnastics. But at the age of seventy, I’m increasingly aware not of what I do know but of what I don’t. I’ve recognized the possibility—indeed, the probability—that others can offer ideas worthy of reflection rather than rebuttal or revision.

Not that I’m waving the flag of false humility. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:7 advises that there is “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” Obviously, I’m still blogging. Moreover, we all have a responsibility to add knowledge to a discussion or class. When we withhold a fact or considered comment, we deprive others of a learning experience. And while good judgment is required, we have an obligation to correct an error that might mislead others.

Attentive listening also can improve personal relationships. At Congregation Sherith Israel’s Rosh Hashanah services, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller gave a sermon on listening without defensiveness when an issue arises. Rather than protesting, interrupting or displaying anger, she said, we do better simply to hear the other person out. Yes, disagreement and anger have their places. But they too often become knee-jerk reactions when someone else speaks about a subject or offers an opinion that may make us uncomfortable or even be contentious.

I started practicing attentive listening last Saturday morning at Torah Study. It went fairly well. I spoke only once—to ask a question. I focused not on what I know but on what others know or how they might get me to look at a piece of the text in a different way. Members of the group may not hear very much from me for the next year (at least), but that’s because I’ll be listening to them.

This brings to mind mid-term Congressional elections only a few weeks off. Our senators and representatives in Washington have a less-than-praiseworthy record when it comes to listening to members of the other party—and sometimes to those of their own. I don’t expect Republicans to become Democrats or Democrats to morph into Republicans. But failing to listen attentively reflects a disturbing preference to demonize others rather than find common ground. Such elected officials say they seek to strengthen the nation. They only weaken it.

So here’s to listening and learning something new. I can’t promise that I’ll succeed, but I won’t fail to try.

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WHAT’S NEW?

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), written according to tradition by Solomon, exclaims, “There is nothing new beneath the sun” (1:9). True that. Ultimately, what goes around comes around—as it did this past week.

Yes, technology races forward. Solomon could not have dreamed of the printing press and steam engine let alone the high-energy particle telescope, smart phone, Internet and Higgs boson—or “God”—particle that may finally have been detected. Politics and economics also evolve. But human nature remains unchanged. We exhibit concerns and passions no different from our ancestors’ thousands of years ago.

Thus the more things change the more they remain the same. Start with the new pope, Francis I. Once, all popes were Italian. Francis, 76, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, is the third consecutive non-Italian pope (although the son of Italian immigrants). He’s also the first from Latin America. But what’s really changed for the Church?

Sexual predators and dubious financial dealings have cast a pall over the Vatican. Nothing new there. Francis declared his intention to transform the Church while maintaining its traditions. He faces a major challenge. Many in the Church hierarchy prefer the status quo. They have their own interests. There’s nothing new about that, either.

Of course, an Argentine pope doesn’t represent the first big change witnessed by many millions of people living today. In August 1945, nuclear energy leaped from the blackboard to Air Force bombers and brought Japan to its knees. In 1960, a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected president of the United States. In July 1969, we literally saw the first moonwalk—on TV.

As the years rolled on, computers came home. The stock market soared and crashed and soared and crashed. Yesterday’s close set a record for the Dow—14,539. A woman, Madeleine Albright, became secretary of state in 1997. And in 2008, a black man—with an Arabic name yet—was elected president.

Progress? Yes and no. Our A-bombs hastened the end of the war but killed over 100,000 Japanese. They also created a frightening arms race, because weapons change but not the traits of fear and aggression. The race continues. Witness North Korea and Iran.

And while nuclear energy created cheaper electricity, it also engendered disasters at Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima. History repeated itself when America’s Catholic president was assassinated. Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley had preceded him. Manned flights to the moon were abandoned. But other nations and groups developed rocketry to assault neighbors or deliver nuclear weapons across the globe.

We know as well that the Internet brings porn into millions of homes and offices along with cyber bullying and ignorant rants inciting hatred. The human mind, capable of nobility and compassion, still works in perverse ways.

So it comes as no surprise that we’re on the cusp of time travel. Banana Republic has introduced its Mad Men collection so we can retreat to the good old days of 1963. Which the show clearly demonstrates were not terribly good at all.

And which offers the validity of another pearl of wisdom: everything old is new again.

Please note that my next post will appear on Monday, March 25.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.