Were we to be perfectly honest, many of us would admit that reading Kohelet can be quite tedious. It is long, circular and constantly leading to dead ends. When I learned it a few years ago, I remember getting excited by certain passages that seemed to be the breakthrough that was finally going to get Kohelet out of his morass of malaise, only to get frustrated each time he turned around and declared that this too was not the right path.
It could be that the Rabbis were expressing a similar frustration when they questioned the book’s inclusion in Tankakh (Shabbat 30a). One would expect their biggest issue to be the nihilistic perspective Kohelet expresses about almost every facet of human life. Though this was certainly an issue, the charge launched at the book is rather that “its words contradict one another.” The Talmud continues: It is written: “Vexation is better than laughter” (Ecclesiastes 7:3), and it is written: “I said of laughter, ‘It is praiseworthy’” (Ecclesiastes 2:2). It is written: “So I commended mirth” (Ecclesiastes 8:15), and it is written, “And of mirth, what does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes 2:2). As I understand it, these contradictions are just another way to refer to the frustrating intellectual and emotional roller coaster I mentioned above.
Granted, the Talmud resolves these contradictions, but the answers do not reflect the plain meaning of the text. That is to say that even if the Rabbis’ resolutions were Kohelet’s intentions, he hid them well enough for the Rabbis to consider expunging it from the Tanakh to begin with.
Though not as critical, there is another problem with Kohelet as well: It is true we are ultimately presented with a profound religious message. But it seems like it could have been expressed in much fewer words. This is an issue that is particularly resonant today. For we live in an era when time seems to be of the essence, creating an ethos of, “If you can say it in fewer words, do so!”
Accordingly, one might think that Kohelet’s message was encapsulated by Yirmiyahu in less than two verses (9:22-23): Thus said the Lord, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory, in his earnest devotion to Me.
While this doesn’t cover all the avenues of possible human satisfaction found in Kohelet, it certainly hits the main three – intelligence, power and wealth. In this terse but powerful passage, the prophet chides us not to connect our identities with these things, but rather only with God. Is that not the ultimate message of Kohelet? And if it is, what is Kohelet doing that merits its inclusion in the Tanakh – especially in view of its other problems?
Perhaps the answer is not in the message but in the medium. What I mean is that Yirmiyahu knew and practiced this truth before he ever received the teaching from God. Hence, it was something obvious that needed no elaboration. Kohelet however is speaking from the experience of having tried to identify with human desiderata. He may well have kept the mitzvot, but that did not stop him from identifying with the great intelligence, power and wealth that he had amassed.
As king of Greater Israel, he was one of the most powerful and influential men of the day. And the more one finds oneself in such a position, the more one can forget his insignificance as a man in front of God. Kohelet actually takes us with him on a road in which true satisfaction always seems just around the corner. But like Godot, we can never seem to turn that corner. And as we read and hope for him to turn the corner again and again, we experience what that road is all about.
Yirmiyahu words just tell us that it is a dead end, whereas Kohelet makes us experience the dead end and gives us a taste of the tremendous inner turmoil and frustration that comes with it. One who has never been impressed with himself need only read the two verses of Yirmiyahu and validate that which he already knows. But for the rest of us, the vacuity of Kohelet’s paths carry the message as it is actually experienced – something which reaches our inner core.
So if you feel frustrated when you hear Kohelet this Shabbat, be aware that you have heard it the way Kohelet intended you to!