“What a depressing book!” is a common response to reading Sefer Kohelet. It seems at first glance that Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, is telling us there is no purpose to all of man’s efforts, whether intellectual, material or social.
However, this nihilistic view often erroneously attributed to Kohelet is not only antithetical to many Jewish beliefs taught by the Torah, it is even contradictory to statements Kohelet himself makes. What then is the message of Sefer Kohelet? Is there a way to interpret Kohelet’s oft-quoted statement “Hevel Havalim hakol hevel” – “Futility of futilities, all is futile” – in a positive, perhaps even inspiring light?
The word hevel appears no fewer than thirty-eight times in the sefer, and if Shlomo HaMelech is telling us all is hevel, it is imperative to properly translate this word. When studying Tanach and trying to define a word, one needs to look at the first place that word appears and translate the word based on the context.
The first place the word hevel appears is in the story in Bereishit of Kayin and Hevel. Hevel is the first person to introduce mortality into the world since he is the first human to die. “Hevel” is therefore defined as vanity or futility since his death teaches us that nothing lasts, all is fleeting, life is like the breath released from our bodies – non-tangible, transient. But there was more to Hevel’s story than his death; there was his life.
In his life he achieved something wonderful and everlasting – a relationship with God. Through his sacrifice he was granted Divine deliverance, and “God turned favorably toward Hevel.” Though Hevel’s death taught us life is not eternal, his life taught us how to gain transience in this world through developing a relationship with God.
The very fact that Kohelet tells us he has “witnessed all the deeds done under the sun, and indeed, all is futile and accomplishes nothing” is meant to inspire us to live life to the utmost by filling it with spiritual endeavors and God’s Torah and mitzvot – the only pursuits that have lasting value as opposed to everything else that in Kohelet’s view is equivalent to “chasing winds.”
A couple of weeks ago I was at an amusement park with my family, enjoying the last few days of summer vacation. My three-year-old son wanted to go an a ride called Turtle Whirl. Needles to say, the ride featured a lot of whirling and spinning. I could barely look at it without feeling slightly ill. My husband graciously agreed to accompany my son and I happily agreed to watch from the sidelines and take pictures. However, try as I might, I wasn’t able to get a single picture – the ride was spinning so fast it was impossible to capture their smiling faces.
Isn’t life the same? How often do we have days – even weeks, months or years – when we feel like we’re spinning around so continuously it seems impossible to even pause long enough to catch one’s breath, let alone stay focused and find meaning in it all?
This idea is what inspired me to create the artwork “Sovev, sovev” pictured on the front page of this week’s Jewish Press. In the artwork, the majority of Sefer Kohelet is written in concentric circles – a dizzying feat in it of itself. As Kohelet instructs us, life and our daily activities are cyclical, just as nature is cyclical. The sun rises, the sun sets, the wind blows from east to west and then back again from west to east. As the Maharal teaches, human actions mirror nature.
Even the words of Kohelet seem cyclical – Shlomo walking us through his logic and analysis of human endeavors just to bring us back to the same point: “hakol hevel” – “all is futile.” The challenge through this dizzying ride of life is to find meaning and perspective.
The Avudraham explains that the words of Kohelet were culled from sermons given by Shlomo HaMelech every seven years on Sukkot when the Jews would gather in Yerushalayim to celebrate the holiday and fulfill the mitzvah of hakhel (one of the reasons the book is called Kohelet).