from the book
Qohelet’s Search for Meaning
The sages attribute to King Solomon three books in the Bible: Song of Songs, Proverbs and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). Since these three works differ from each other in their content and style, the Midrash associates them with three periods in his life. The best-known midrash relates that in his youth he composed love songs, when he matured, he spoke words of wisdom, and in his old age he realized the futility of all his efforts and composed Qohelet. He no longer sought love or wisdom – he conducted, in the words of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an introspection, the like of which can hardly be found in the annals of rabbinic literature. It is evident that the author of the scroll, whoever he may be, was cognizant that death is imminent, and was left to ponder the meaning of his days, which as they are running out foster in him a growing sense of “mere breath and herding the wind”. Even Solomon, known as the “wisest of men”, is not tempted to ask for a reprieve, to be admitted into the world-to-come, nor does he expected reincarnation. He had seen it all, experienced it all and concluded that nothing would change and that nothing is of any difference. The world follows its determined course, and everything repeats itself in a despairing cycle: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.” (Qohelet 1, 4). What has been is what will be again, and any attempt to change the ways of the world is doomed to failure. Even the wonders of the world fail to impress Qohelet. They convey a rigid legality, and unlike the man of who composes songs of praise, they do not arouse in him any feeling of religious transcendence. From the vantage of the solitary individual – for we are concerned with a solitary man – every initiative is futile, as is every effort, every action. Ernst Renan, the 19th-century French scholar, attributes the scroll to “jaded pleasure-seeker” and states: “Ecclesiastes is the work of absolute degeneration. Nothing has ever appeared older, more spent.”
For Everything is a Mere Breath
Qohelet offers a rather prosaic diagnosis of life. The world is indifferent to man’s longings and prayers. It takes no heed of his desires and wishes. Without regard for his actions, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the waves of sea following in each other’s wake. And in contrast to the regularity of natural phenomena, man is consumed from within and perishes from without. He is no more master of his fate than are the beasts of the field: “And man’s advantage over the beast is naught, for everything is mere breath” (3, 19). From the moment of his birth he is compelled to endure his days and nights, whether he curls up in his corner or reposes in his palace. He is sentenced to death, with nothing after it. No reward and no punishment. He will have to leave everything, surrender everything, and descend into the earth: “As he came out from his mother’s womb, naked will he return to go as he came, and nothing will he bear off from his toil that he brings in his hand” (5, 14). The Midrash will say: “When man comes into the world his hands are clenched as if to say, the whole world is mine and I grab hold of it, and when he passes from the world his hands are relaxed, as if to say, I have inherited nothing from this world (Qohelet Rabbah 5:16).
Qohelet is rattled by death which is, to use Camus’s expression, man’s “supreme abuse”. Nothing removes its menace; nothing masks its progress. Following it, nothing awaits him but the blurring of differences between the righteous and the wicked, the rich and the poor – erasing them all from the face of the earth, without mention and remembrance: “And the dead know nothing, and they no longer have recompense, for their memory is forgotten. Their love and their hatred as well, their jealousy, too, are already lost, and they no longer have any share forever in all that is done under the sun” (9, 5-6). Qohelet feels so helpless in the face of death that he surrenders to it: “And I praised the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. And better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (4, 2-3). Qohelet does not toy with any illusion, neither in lust nor in procreation, nor passions nor values, nor principles nor ideals.
One thing is common to all commentators: Qohelet condemns men who toil in the pursuit of anything – property, honors, titles, books: “What gain is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?” (1, 3) His labor is driven by a need that feeds itself, boundless and without hope. It is like a passion for exposure, control and ascendancy, which knows no satisfaction. Toil stirs up competition, rivalry and cunning. It is the root of all sin and injustice. Dissatisfaction is not born of scarcity but of toil. The man of the earth is happy in his lot; the man of toil stumbles upon, at one moment or another in his life, the futility of rushing frenziedly to his death. Toil sentences the toiling man to ever-present dissatisfaction, insatiability. Without contentment and without peace. Qohelet’s conception of human existence is sober to the point of cruelty. In the opinion of some commentators, it is the most succinct manifesto of vanity – of the absurd.
In Much Wisdom is Much Worry
Qohelet is not taken in by words of wisdom, and books do not impress him. Books have been, books will be, and as they multiply they crowd the libraries. The search for wisdom is an illusion, and claims to achieve it are self-deception and the misleading of others. All that remains is humiliating ignorance, a recurring bafflement, yielding more despair than satisfaction, uprooting any hope. We stay on a question that undermines every belief, every position, every argument. Wisdom is not truly effective – it sways neither human beings nor circumstances, nor the laws of nature nor the decrees of destiny. For there is time for everything, peace or war, and human intervention makes no difference – especially if it is intellectual, ignoring emotions and attitudes. Qohelet rejects the rationalistic position, that recognizing the good deed guarantees its performance, or in the popular expression: “One should think before he acts”. He calls for acceptation of the events of life as they appear: To ask for nothing, to claim nothing. To strive for nothing, to struggle for nothing. Man is a spectator to his own experiences, agreeing to what fate grants him, swept by forces that do not recognize his desires, wishes and prayers. The pinnacle of wisdom is to be searched in denying wisdom. Qohelet sounds as a bored nihilist: “All this I tried out through wisdom. I said, Let me grow wise, and it was far away from me” (7, 23). Anyone who accumulates wisdom only hordes pain: “For in much wisdom is much worry, and he who adds wisdom adds pain” (1, 18). More than wisdom brings satisfaction, it deprives of sleep: “When I set my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, day and night my eyes saw no sleep” (8 ,16). Wisdom only reveals the dark sides of human nature and the ugly face of society.
Who Have no One to Console Them
Qohelet is no prophet. He does not rebuke or protest – neither moral injustices nor social or political wrongs, neither oppression nor the plight of the oppressed. Only once does he remember them and hastens to attribute their condition and suffering to the hollowness of the world: “And I went back and saw all the oppression that is done under the sun: the tears of the oppressed who have none to console them, and from the hand of their violent oppressors there is none to console them” (4, 1). He hardly grapples with the question of theodicy, which is at the heart of the book of Job. Divine justice is not apparent, and there is no justification of divine judgment but acceptance – without the sophistry that overwhelms theological writings: “The righteous perishing in his righteousness, and the wicked living a long life in his evil” (7, 15), “As all have a single fate, the righteous and the wicked” (9, 2). On this subject, Qohelet prefaces the Talmudic saying “There is no Judgment and no judge, and leave is granted” (Vayikra Rabbah, 28).
Despite his royal rank, Qohelet is averse to politics and loathes politicians. He does not seek the good life – for life is not good – but experiences it as it is. Everything in this world is decided: “I know that there is nothing good in it but to be merry and to partake of good things in his life” (3, 12). He denies any meaning that can be assigned to life, including reproduction, which is absent from the scroll or is made inconsequential in the face of changing generations: “A generation goes and a generation comes”. It would even seem he finds no consolation in leaving the fruit of his labor to offspring, but advocates its consumption. One finds in him an indulgence in pleasure, as refuge found in the hedonism woven into the sense of life, but without wildness or exuberance. Traditional commentators have preferred to speak of joy, though it would be better to speak of quiet satisfaction, if not pleasure, caused by the reconciliation with destiny and with its lot: “Better a palmful of ease than two handfuls of toil and herding the wind” (4, 6).
A Word Before God
Qohelet does not have much to say about God. He even invites his readers and listeners to make little reference to him: “Be not rash with your mouth, and let your heart not hurry to utter a word before God. For God is in the heavens and you are on earth” (5, 1). It is not known whether God exists or not, and one does not investigate this question. Although Qohelet recommends keeping promises to God, fulfilling vows and keeping faith with him, it seems that God does not play a significant role in human life, and may not even show interest in it. As if punishment – if there be such a thing – is enfolded in the very breach of the relationship individual man establishes with God, unless it is an epicurean deity. Qohelet warns-cautions-proclaims: “Why should God rage over your voice and ruin your handiwork” (5, 5). He does not expressly speak of a personal relationship to God – because what person would position himself as God’s creation, let alone his adversary or partner in creation. He does not argue with him, bargain with him, complain of him, or even pray to him. The scroll lacks any tremor of faith and any liturgical tone. God is so distant, and even so indifferent, that he is of no help to man.
The God of Qohelet imposes himself on the reader as a blind force, sensitive to nothing: Not to the celestial spheres, not to the fates, not to the minds, and not to emotions, neither to good nor to evil, neither to the righteous nor to the wicked. If God understands himself, no person can do the same. Morality is of no interest to him, neither in this world nor in others. He is feared as one fears a god indifferent to human wonder, so terrible that he strikes awe – a primal fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unexpected. He is not sanctified, he is not addressed, one is not called to him, and does not answer him. People walk in his ways, grow accustomed to them, reconcile themselves to them – even when ignorant of them. Perhaps the middle way, without righteousness and without wickedness, without wisdom and without foolishness. Qohelet’s conception of the deity is closer to the Greek conception – according to which God is revealed by fate and as fate, regardless of man’s deeds, values, relations to other people – than to the God of the patriarchs, Moses’s Jehovah, the gods of the prophets and of the other biblical authors.
In Qohelet, God does not appear at the dawn of human existence, accompanied by the question: “who generated this creation”, but at its end, towards its termination, as if saying that there is no meaning other than God. The Unknown and the Unfathomable dawn by chance, which is manifested in necessity. He is the word – there will be those who will say the name – to which humans cling, to assign, in spite of all, some sense of endurance to life, and around which congregations gather to share customs and pray in chorus. Without God, whether he exists or not, life is meaningless, and that is the secret of his power and the mystery of faith in him. If he exists only as a scarecrow dulling the certainty of death, he plants the illusion that removes its sentence-curse, and without this illusion it is difficult to cling to any hope. It is certainly possible to live a wonderful and despairing life with no need for God, our lips making no mention of him, passing from excitement to melancholy as one who is reconciled to a life of manic-depression: “On the one hand to deny,” says Camus, “on the other to be filled with enthusiasm, this is the way of the creating person under the absurd”. And he is quick to clarify: “He must provide colors to the abyss.” The colors of the rainbow, the colors of creation, the colors of hatred and love, the colors of sand and stars – each has its own colors according to its heritage and inheritance, whether he receives them from a religious tradition or invents them. Camus clarifies: “Those who require myths are quite poor.” To him nihilism is not a seal – neither of truth nor of falsehood. It is neither a guarantee of happiness nor of misery. It characterizes man exiled from the state of the beast, man as a creature: “Metaphysical happiness can be found in meeting the vanity of the world.”
The Number of the Days of their Lives
If Proverbs offers wisdom in abundance and the books of the prophets are full of rebuke, Qohelet is the scroll of refined truth. It sets forth an existential doctrine, as prominent and extreme as may be found in all world literature. It does not concern religion or morality but the very existence of man: “Until I might see what is good for the sons of man that they should do under the heavens in the number of the days of their lives” (2, 3). The sense of weariness reveals itself in its tone, if not its content, and its absurdity is more extreme than in comparable Latin or Chinese writings. No beliefs and no opinions, no dreams and no illusions, no power of reason and no force of desire, no wisdom and no folly, no justice and no wickedness, no joy and no debauchery, no grief and no consolation, no royalty and no slavery, no reward and no punishment. I cannot say whether Qohelet himself was a nihilist, or to what extent his doctrine approaches nihilism – to what extent the word “breath” (‘Hevel’) encapsulates the Latin word Nihil. Would it be right to speak of negative nihilism meaning the negation of every phenomenon. Of positive nihilism meaning the affirmation of every phenomenon, as in the Midrash on the man of Gimzo, who accepts every event and tiding with the formula: “This too is good” (Ta’anit 21: 2) or Nietzsche’s amor fati: “To desire nothing but what is, neither backwards nor forwards, nor in the coming centuries.”
The nihilism of Qohelet does not engender up conspiracies, whether driven by self-hostility or enmity towards the other. It is carried on the crest of life, compelling itself when it is revealed that all was in vain and that there is nothing left but to resign to the sigh, ejected as breath from the abyss, which grows larger with the approach of death. Ultimately, the whole gospel of Qohelet is to live, to the greatest possible extent, a contented life: “On the day of good luck, enjoy the good, and on the day of evil observe” (7 ,14), or: “Look, I have seen what is good: it is fit to eat and to drink and enjoy good things in all his toil that he toils under the sun in the number of the days of his life that God gave him, for that is his share” (5, 17). Qohelet’s position is so extreme that some wonder why he left us his thoughts in writing.
Do not be Over-Righteous
It is impossible to encounter the sensual abundance of the Song of Songs, the suspicion of apostasy emanating from Job and the sense of vanity that Qohelet inspires without thinking that these are books could easily have been left outside the biblical canon, had not a group of sages held views which placed them at the crossroads of saducees and heretics. Their views border on heresy, as they have been denounced in rabbinic circles, whether it stems from death’s erosion of all meaning, the contradictions inherent in life, the question of theodicy or the tribulations of fate. In fact we do not know what the scroll says; it holds contrasting views on any matter: Man’s position before heaven and earth, the meaning he derives from his life or he assigns to it, his labor under the sun, his standing before God, God’s relation to him. One thing is inescapable: the general atmosphere Qohelet instilled with his thoughts, from the fluctuations of his attitudes, the laconic rhythm of his voice, the breadth of his despair, the sense of melancholy he conveys to the impartial reader: “Why should you be dumbfounded? Don’t be over-wicked and don’t be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” (7, 16-17) Those versed in the Greeks and Latins, may find it difficult to overlook the traces of Epicurus – unless one reads in the scroll a rebuke to anyone who renounces the closeness of God, labors for his needs or honors, is tempted by his pleasures, is driven by the days approaching their end… walking about as if there were nothing overhead. Simply because the scroll is included in the Bible, there is a tendency to subscribe to the interpretation that life has no meaning other than that under God, by his side, in his shadow, whatever he may be.
Most rabbinical commentators mute the bluntness of the scroll and gloss over its meaning. They detract from the greatness and nobility of those who included it in the Bible. Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s assertion that the editors viewed the scroll as the testament of pure faith, according to which recognizing God is its own reward, and no further prize is to be expected of him, is more in line with his views than with the scroll’s spirit. The mention of God is a cry of despair that says: “I have searched everything, I have experienced everything and found nothing that can endow meaning other than God”; or as it is written: “The last word, all being heard: fear God and keep His commands, for that is all humankind” (12, 13). Although the last verses are not convincing and sound like an addition, one can also accept them and see in them a conclusion following from Qohelet’s thoughts – provided that God is likened to a hypothesis that rescues humanity from the futility of labor. I do not know which God it is, for every prophet and every wise man has his own God. It seems to me that the God of Qohelet is the God of Job, devoid of any forward-facing thought. One can assume that both compositions belong to the same author or came from the same group of Sadducees. The offering, in Pline’s words, of “the heretical people.”
For that is all Humankind
Not everyone can bear the words of Qohelet and treat God as a vital illusion, on which he must rely in order to give meaning to his life. We continue to search for him, to pray for his response, to see him in a burning bush, in a gentle whisper, in a breath of silence. He peeks into the crevices of human thought, ignites prayer in him, instills hope in him. Imposing himself through the wonders of the universe unfolding before him, he pours his life into the patterns of religious law. We call on him from the depths of the abyss with every fiber of our souls and with all our senses – to resemble him or even to incarnate him. Our call – more than he calls us we call at him or are called to him – is laced with anarchic tones, which ultimately enter into a theological furrow. For if he does not deliver from death – does not raise the dead – there is no need in him; if our worship is not comforting – promising a world-to-come – there is no need of him. Man is so rattled by death, by the transition to extinction, that he assumes something beyond this world: some perpetuation undertaking, even if remembrance no longer atones for the ephemerality of life. Only God, whatever he may be, treasures the memory of our soul – for he created it, lent it and receives it back. Man is condemned to grapple with God whether he doubts his existence or believes in him, whether he finds in him solace and a balm, torment or terror. He is ever present and ever absent, existing and non-existent, omnipotent and powerless, summoning up paradoxes for the glory of God and man, God-man or man-god, as if doubt resonates in his silence. For to speak of God in negative terms, to say of him that he is not perceived, neither as a statue nor as a concept, is to leave him in the inexhaustible realm of wonder and doubt, and to admit, as Camus says, that he is either “an almighty evil-working deity” or an “impotent beneficent deity”.
The voice of Qohelet is not silent, she is audible in more than one place in the Midrash: “As man came, so shall he go, man came with voice, and passes from the world with voice; He came in wailing, and passes from the world with wailing […], he came with affection, and passes from the world with affection; he came with a sigh and passes from the world with a sigh; he came into the world without knowledge and passes from the world without knowledge.” The best-known midrash is, doubtless: “The seven vanities that Qohelet spoke, for the seven worlds that man sees in his life; a one-year-old is like a king and all embrace and kiss him; a two-year-old is like a pig who spreads his hands in the gutters; a ten-year-old springs like a goat; a twenty-year-old neighs like a horse, improves itself and desires to marry a woman. Once he takes wife he is like a donkey, that is – he is not a donkey because he married, but since he has married he now bears the load of family and providing livelihood. Once he bears sons, he becomes brazen as a dog to bring them bread and food. When he grows old he is like an ape.”
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