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The biblical book that asks what is the point of existence

Succot is the season of joy- so why do we read a book reflecting on the apparent futility of life?

    Getty Images
    Getty Images

    Are you worried about climate change? Brexit? How about President Trump? Perhaps antisemitism? Or maybe your concerns are more prosaic — the rising costs of university tuition fees, local provision for social care on the NHS, or the need for affordable housing in your area. 

    Whatever is keeping you awake at night, fear not!  Kohelet is here with the answer to your anxieties — we will all age and eventually die; nothing that is happening now is any different than what has happened before. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). 

    The book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes as it is known in English, contains the philosophical musings of the eponymous author. Although classically ascribed to the aged King Solomon, we know little about the author of Kohelet except what we can infer from context. Kohelet appears reflective, but jaded; generations come and generations go but the world remains the same (Ecclesiastes 1:4). 

    Kohelet clearly has personal experience of wealth and education but values neither overmuch. Kohelet has tried both epicurean and stoic philosophy, too, but without success. In the end, whether Kohelet eats and drinks his fill or seeks wisdom and knowledge, everything is insignificant and chasing after the wind (2:17).  

    We read Kohelet as the seasons turn from autumn’s late fecundity towards winter’s barrenness’
     

    Much of Kohelet’s musings describe the cyclical nature of life, most famously immortalised in the Pete Seeger song Turn, Turn, Turn, which quotes Ecclesiastes 3: 1- 8 extensively. A time exists for everything— birth and death, planting and uprooting, slaying and healing etc until we learn that even love and hate and war and peace all have their moments. 

    But unlike the Seeger song, the point is not that we should focus on peace, but rather that if all of these matters are just part of the natural cycle, then we should be asking what the point is. Justice and evil both exist in the world; evil and righteousness, too (3: 16). Perhaps it’s best just to enjoy what we have while we have it (3:22). 

    Still the enjoyment of the here and now is no better than any other approach. Neither wisdom nor wealth is anything more than the famous hevel, variously translated as vanity, futility and illusion (among other possibilities). Hevel is, in many ways, the key to Kohelet. It is the beginning and the end (assuming, as many scholars do, that Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14 is a late edition to the text): “Havel, havalim, omar Kohelet, havel havalim, hakol hevel”, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

    This verse is word for word both Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8. What can it mean, this verse with the same root repeated five times in eight words? The root h-v-l is a vapour, the smallest breath of air one can imagine; the least substantial thing we can think of that is still something. That is what our lives are — almost completely insubstantial, but still here, yearning for meaning that may or may not exist. 

    Kohelet has been identified as the first existentialist, likened to the 20th- century philosopher, Albert Camus. What, ask both Camus and Kohelet, is the point of existence? Round and round Kohelet goes, searching for some meaning, finding in the end only that “the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (12: 7). That is all.

     Our lives may be slight, but they are still our lives. Like Camus, who asserts that the only true philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide and who answers that we must choose to live, Kohelet, too, recognises that death is the ultimate end of all of us, but that does not mean that we should fail to live, however fleetingly. 

    Only in the epilogue does Kohelet offer us anything more. “The end of the matter when all is heard —fear God and keep God’s commandments” (12:13), ie fear of God and following the mitzvot is the only purpose we can hope to find. Yet, the Kohelet of 1: 2- 12: 8 does not seem convinced by this message at all. Perhaps it was only added to make the book more theologically palatable for inclusion in the biblical canon. 

    Why, then, is Kohelet here, in our scriptures, being read on Succot? I cannot answer definitely why we read Kohelet at Succot; numerous possibilities have been posited, though the midrashic one (quoted by Rashi) relates to Ecclesiastes 11: 2, which enjoins us to “give portions to seven and also eight”, perhaps a coded reference to the eight days of Succot. 

    But for me, the reason to have Kohelet in our tradition and to read it as the seasons turn from autumn’s late fecundity towards winter’s barrenness is simply this: everything is cyclical. As we turn to face the impending winter we should be reminded that much will pass away from the earth, but new life will return in the spring and for us, however slender our lives, the point is simply to carry on living.
     

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