October 3rd, 2018

After high school, whenever I would return home from yeshiva between semesters, I would attend daily prayers at a Hasidic shul in my home neighborhood in London.

This synagogue had a “minyan” scheduled every 15 minutes from 7 in the morning until at least 10 o’clock. Every morning, whatever time I chose to attend, I would see an elderly man sitting at the back of the shul, on his own, praying quietly to himself. He looked sick and weak, sitting on his own in his tallit and tefillin. No one spoke to him, and he barely spoke to anyone.

I asked around to see if people knew who he was. They told me his name. He was once the rabbi of a very prominent community in London’s West End, I was told, but he had fallen on hard times.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

No one would go into any further detail. So eventually I went home and asked my father. But he, too, was also reluctant to tell me. “It’s lashon hara,” he said.

“Come on Dad, please tell me – what’s the story with the old rabbi?” I pressed him hard, and didn’t relent.

Eventually he told me. The elderly sick-looking man at the back of the Hasidic shul had once been the prominent rabbi of a fancy synagogue, and simultaneously the executive director of a prominent community organization. He was a great speaker, and very well connected. He was beloved by his community, as was his wife; she taught at a thriving Jewish day school.

Then one day, out of the blue, the rabbi divorced his wife, and soon afterwards married his formerly non-Jewish secretary – a woman he had arranged to convert to Judaism. His children were so angry with what he had done to their mother that they all stopped speaking to him.

Within a short time the synagogue fired him, along with his new wife, and soon afterwards he lost his job at the community organization. Although he was more than 20 years older than his wife, and already had several children from his first marriage, they had a couple of children, and managed to get by on social welfare.

After having been married to her for a few years he began to show some debilitating physical symptoms and went to the doctor, only to discover that he had Parkinson’s disease. It was the last straw for his second wife. She left him and would barely let him see their children.

Completely penniless, alone in the world, and living in a single room social housing apartment, he came to the synagogue every morning and sat there for a few hours so that he could spend some time among people, even if few of them ever spoke to him.

I felt very sorry for a man who was so down on his luck, whatever the cause, and I began greeting him each day with a cheery: “good morning, rabbi, how are you this morning?”

And every morning, unfailingly, he gave me exactly the same answer: “I’m great, things couldn’t get any better.”

I was really impressed. What fortitude, I thought to myself. The man is clearly in a terrible place, and yet he’s so upbeat.

One morning I plucked up the courage and said to him. “I’m amazed that you have such an upbeat attitude.”

“You’ve got it all wrong, Pini,” he replied with a smile. “You see, until about a year ago, whenever people asked me how I was, I would answer ‘it couldn’t get any worse,’ and it always did. So now when people ask me how I am, I say, ‘I’m great, things couldn’t get any better!’ and I hope they will.

I was thinking of this rabbi and his depressing outlook as we all listened to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) as it was read out aloud at our synagogue, in line with the tradition of Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot.

Twelve chapters of bilious ranting by an angry old man called Kohelet. He’s had everything there is to have, and it’s all meaningless. He’s tried everything the world has to offer – wine, women, song, riches, food, palaces, vacations – and in the end he’s still miserable! Every time he thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

We happen to know that Kohelet is none other than Shlomo Hamelech – the legendary King Solomon. He’s not overtly named in the text, but the author identifies himself at the beginning (Eccl. 1:1): דִבְרֵי קֹהֶלֶת בֶּן דָוִד מֶלֶךְ בִּירוּשָלָיִם.

King David only had one son who was a king – Solomon, which means that the author of Kohelet can only be Solomon, writing pseudonymously as “Kohelet”.

This raises the question – why does he call himself Kohelet? Why does he not refer to himself by his name Solomon?

There is a second, far more fundamental question about Kohelet. Why was it ever included in our canonized scriptures? The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) notes that the sages wanted to conceal this text and confine it to obscurity (“bikshu lignoz”), as they were concerned about the fact that it was not a religious tract, and also that it contains many contradictions.

The Midrash suggests (Vayikra Rabba 28:1) that they also considered discarding Kohelet because it contains certain passages that appear to be heresy. For example, in one place Kohelet questions the value of human effort in any sphere; in others Kohelet seems to endorse pleasure-seeking for its own sake.

So in the final analysis, why was Kohelet included in the canon? The Midrash suggests that rabbinic interpretation neutralized themes that might have subverted the faith of those who read it. But, in truth, this is not a very satisfying explanation. Most people will never read the rabbinic interpretation. Rather they read the literal text, which appears to be either epicurean, or stoic – but is certainly not very Jewish.

The Talmud suggests that Kohelet was retained because of words of Torah that appear both at the beginning and at end of the work. This is certainly a more interesting, more satisfying answer. Interesting, because it means the rabbis did not resolve the contradictions – instead, they allowed them to be there and expect us to use the faithful parts of the text as our guide. Satisfying, because, if anything, it appears they decided to include it in the canon exactly as a result of its disturbing themes.

What are those themes, and how are we meant to relate to them?

The decision to include Kohelet reveals something very important. Rather than trying to hide the warts, the foundational sages of rabbinic Judaism wanted us to get deep into the heart of the human condition with all its flaws, and be exposed to them in every detail.

Moreover, what they wanted us to know was that King Solomon was a complex character, not just because of what he did, but because of how it affected him. In particular, they wanted us to hear how his rollercoaster life impacted on the way he thought – and then take those lessons as fundamental lessons of faith.

Of course they could have played it safe and excluded Kohelet for fear of its dangerous potential. I have a feeling that if the vote for Kohelet’s inclusion were held today among senior rabbis it would not end up in the canon.

But the sages were wise, and the sages were brave. They chose otherwise. In a world that lends itself to pleasure seeking, time wasting, cynicism, pessimism, fatalism and worse – they decided that Kohelet has an important place. With the crucial proviso that it must be used as a platform for growth.

Who was King Solomon and what is he remembered for? Remarkably, traditional Judaism considers Solomon the paradigmatic Crown Prince of Jewish History. He was King David’s second son of the union with Bathsheba, the first having died as a result of it having been born as a result of the her illicit affair with David. Solomon was named “Shlomo” to connote the “shalom” (peace) that now prevailed between God and King David, after the latter’s humbling repentance.

In the wake of Absalom’s rebellion against King David and subsequent death, Solomon was proclaimed heir to the throne, and despite an attempt by Adonijah to take the kingdom from his father, Solomon prevailed, and was crowned king. 

Solomon is a magisterial, majestic leader, and succeeded in keeping the kingdom together, managing to rid it of those who wish to undermine peace and security. He also built a fabulous Temple in Jerusalem, replacing the centuries old temporary sanctuary that had been at the center of Jewish ritual life since Moses. Solomon increased the territorial size of the kingdom, and made the country rich and powerful, faithful and successful. 

Solomon is best known for his wisdom. In 1 Kings he brought a sacrifice to God, after which God appeared to him in a dream and offered him anything he wanted. He asked for wisdom. God granted him great wisdom – and was especially pleased because Solomon had not asked for selfish rewards, such as a long life, or the death of his enemies.

It was all going so well. And then things began to unravel.

If you read the passage in the Torah of how a king should behave, it reads like the opposite of how King Solomon behaved (Deut 17:16-17).

רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא יָשִׁיב אֶת הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַה’ אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַדֶרֶךְ הַזֶה עוֹד

He should not own many horses, nor send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, as God has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה לוֹ נָשִ֔ים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה לוֹ מְאֹד

And he should not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor should he amass silver and gold to excess.

Despite these ominous warnings from the Torah, Solomon collected horses and wives in equal measure, and even married an Egyptian princess, becoming one of the wealthiest kings in the world. He allowed idol-worship, and we are told that his wives turned his heart towards pagan Gods and he even built Temples to those gods, possibly even the famed Temples at Palmyra.

As a result of his excesses and iniquity he was punished by God, who divided the kingdom, giving most of it to his servant Jeroboam – albeit this only happened after Solomon died.

And yet, how does traditional Jewish History recall him? As the greatest of all the kings – because he built the Temple and set the standard for Jewish life for the next thousand years.

And do you know why he is remembered so positively? The answer is simple – because he wrote Kohelet. The Hebrew word Kohelet comes from the root “k-h-l” – congregation. Solomon, the wisest man of Jewish history, the wealthiest man of Jewish history, the most powerful man of Jewish history, the man with the best pedigree of anyone in Jewish history – as it turns out, he was just like everyone else. Just like the rest of the congregation. When presented with the best hand of cards anyone could ever have – he screwed it all up. And then he wrote about it.

“I am not Solomon,” he wrote, “I am Kohelet. I’m everyman. I’m just like you guys. The only difference between you and me is that I’ve tried everything there is to try, I’ve had everything there is to have, and I’ve discovered that it’s all a massive waste of time. If I had my time again, I wouldn’t bother. So listen up guys, don’t bother. Because in the end, it simply isn’t worth it.”

At the conclusion of Kohelet, Solomon sums it all up:

דִבְרֵי חֲכָמִים כַדָרְבֹנוֹת וּֽכְמַשְמְרוֹת נְטוּעִים בַעֲלֵי אֲסֻפּוֹת נִתְנוּ מֵרֹעֶה אֶחָד

The sayings of the wise are like rods, like nails fixed in prodding sticks. They were all given by one Shepherd [God].

וְיֹתֵר מֵהֵמָה בְנִי הִזָהֵר עֲשׂוֹת סְפָרִים הַרְבֵּה אֵין קֵץ וְלַהַג הַרְבֵּה יְגִעַת בָשָר

One more thing, my son, let me warn you: the number of books with wisdom is unlimited, and you can study so much that it wears you out.

סוֹף דָבָר הַכֹּל נִשְמָע אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתָיו שְמוֹר כִי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם

In the end, when all is said and done, there is only one message that counts – revere God and observe His commandments! For that is all a man amounts to.

The last phrase, כִי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם, may also mean – “because that is the sum total of every man.” We humans are all the same, and the same rules apply to all of us, whether we are King Solomon, or whether we are just ‘ordinary’.

For that powerful lesson alone the sages decided to include Kohelet in our canon. And how wise they were to do so.

Image Copyright: Chalermphon Kumchai

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