Each year, amid the ebullient joy manifest during the holiday of Sukkot, we read the megillah of Kohelet. With its realistic perspective on the world, Kohelet provides us with the means to not only properly calibrate our joy, but to accurately understand the role of joy and happiness in the world.
The Gemara in Mesechet Shabbat (30b) relates that the rabbis feared people would misunderstand the true message of Kohelet due to its seemingly contradictory aphorisms. To prevent the dangers inherent in such misunderstandings, Chazal considered removing the megillah from circulation. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook explains that it wasn’t that Chazal doubted the holiness and importance of Kohelet. Rather, they were concerned that, due to its complex nature, people would fail to understand its true message and be misled by their own misunderstanding.
The Gemara describes how Chazal ultimately kept Kohelet in circulation because it both begins and concludes with the ideas of the centrality of Torah and Yirat Shamayim. People would question any interpretation that undermined these ideas. Armed with this reality, the Gemara quotes several examples from rabbanim who resolved some of the apparent contradictions, thus demonstrating that with study all of the contradictions could be resolved.
Thousands of years after Shlomo HaMelech wrote Kohelet its message still resonates with us. Like all sifrei Tanach, Kohelet not only spoke to the generation of its writing, but continues to speak its universal message to all generations.
In history, the truly great works and speeches are those that proved not only relevant to their contemporary audiences but have continued to inspire future generations as well. A classic example of such a speech is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address delivered on November 19, 1863. Among the most interesting factoids regarding this speech is that it was not the main speech. The official oration was delivered by the nation’s leading orator of the day, Edward Everett. Lincoln, as President of the United States, was invited almost as an afterthought to what was perceived as a state, not federal, affair.
Everett prepared extensively for his speech. In fact, the dedication of the cemetery was delayed nearly a month because Everett needed more time for his preparation. On the day of the dedication Everett spoke before Lincoln. And speak he did—his speech lasted for two hours, which was the norm for public orations at the time. Everett’s job was to explain what happened during the battle. He explained the significance of the battle in the context of the broader campaign and overall war. His oration “Was like a modern docudrama on television, telling the story of recent events on the basis of investigative reporting” (The Smithsonian Collection Edition: The Ultimate Guide to the Civil War, “From These Honored Dead” by Garry Wills, p. 84). By all accounts Everett did an outstanding job. His oration was well-received and had accomplished its set goals.
Following Everett, Lincoln stood up with his sheet or two of paper. Lincoln understood the moment as well. He had been looking for an occasion to lay out his war aims and give meaning to the war. The fact that so many state governors and other notables would be at Gettysburg that day convinced Lincoln of the importance of the opportunity. With a mere 270 words Lincoln proceeded to ensoul the war through the departed souls of the soldiers. Lincoln also set out to change how people viewed the Constitution and the purpose of the country. “Everett succeeded with his audience by being thoroughly immersed in the detail of the event he was celebrating. Lincoln eschewed all local emphasis. His speech hovered far above the carnage…Lincoln was after an even larger game—he meant to ‘win’ the whole Civil War in ideological terms as well as military ones. And he succeeded: The Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean” (p.85).
After the Gettysburg Address the Civil War was no longer a war about slavery or states’ rights. It became, as Lincoln framed it, a far loftier war, imbued with universal and perennial significance as to whether: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
To write and deliver a speech that transcends its local time and place requires a leader who not only understands what his immediate constituents need, but one who has universal and long-term goals. Without local vision the leader’s speech and comments will seem meaningless to the immediate audience. Without the vision to see the universal in the local and the future in the immediate, the speech, no matter how important to the local audience, will remain a citizen of its original time and place.Rabbi David Hertzberg