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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