“Says Rabbi Samuel, son of Nahman: The sages wanted to delete the Book of Ecclesiastes from the sacred canon of the Bible. Why? Because they found there things that bordered on heresy. They exclaimed: Is this all that the wisdom of Solomon amounts to? He writes, ‘Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment’ [Ecclesiastes 11:9]. If Moses says, ‘that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray’ [Numbers 15:39], how can Solomon say, ‘and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes’? The strap has been loosened! This is a lawless state of affairs – where there are no judges and no laws! However, when Solomon says, ‘but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment,’ the sages declared: Solomon is speaking here pure words of truth!” (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] Rabbah 11:9).
What is the nature of the heresy in Ecclesiastes, as claimed by the sages? Toward the end of the book, the author to whom it is traditionally attributed, King Solomon, urges the young man being addressed to “walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes” – that is, to follow his inclinations. The sages sharply contrast this nihilistic counsel with the verse from the Book of Numbers relating to the vital and unique function of the tzitzit (ritual fringe), which one is commanded to affix to the four corners of one’s garment: “And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” (Num. 15:39).
The tzitzit is intended to remind its wearer of God’s commandments and to prevent actions driven by basic impulses. It is the “strap” used to “whip” those who disobey God’s laws. In dramatic contrast with this “strap,” Ecclesiastes’ words seem to express the height of nihilism. “Is this all that the wisdom of Solomon amounts to?” exclaims the midrash, horrified. “This is a lawless state of affairs!”
The purpose of this cry is to prove that the situation is actually the reverse of what it seems to be. Referring to the latter part of the above verse, the midrash notes that Solomon reminds his youthful reader, “but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” – but then the midrash corrects its initial impression: “Solomon is speaking here pure words of truth!”
A more complete reading reveals that Ecclesiastes is not urging the reader to follow his mere whims, but is challenging him instead, saying: Follow your heart’s desires, but in the final analysis, “know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” Ecclesiastes is not trying to create a moral code here that will rival that of the Torah, but is instead challenging the youth, rhetorically and didactically, reminding him that God ultimately judges all mortals.
Rabbi Hiyya ("the Great") suggests a parable to explain the conclusions drawn from this verse in Ecclesiastes: “Rabbi Hiyya Raba said: There is a person fleeing his executioner. The condemned man is running and the executioner is in pursuit, and calls out: ‘If you were to run more slowly, you would reduce the amount of time needed for me to drag you to the gallows.’ This is how we should understand ‘but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment’” (Kohelet Rabbah 11:9).
The parable is used to explain that the second half of the verse in Ecclesiastes negates the first, and to restrain the impetuous reader, warning him not to run too far (i.e., continue his sinful ways) lest he worsen his punishment. Rabbi Hiyya notes that the tone in which the sages read Ecclesiastes is sarcastic: Ecclesiastes does not intend to allow the young man to act licentiously, but instead instructs him to note the fate of those who follow their heart’s desires and flaunt God’s laws.
The sages, who are very familiar with the Book of Numbers’ code of ethics, approach Ecclesiastes’ sophisticated rhetoric with some trepidation, but realize the need to “adjust” the code they know to what Ecclesiastes is saying. Still, the verse in question raises serious questions about the biblical code of morals and ethics.
A few verses earlier, Ecclesiastes states, “As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all things” (Ecc. 11:5). God’s actions and his will are beyond human understanding, and thus, counsels Ecclesiastes, the only action one can take is: “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good” (Ecc. 11:6). The lack of knowledge demands that a person maximize his prospects by sowing seeds twice a day – i.e., to make strenuous efforts in both his youth and his latter years.
When people follow this balanced course of action, they increase the likelihood of enjoying the “work of God.” Since the world is built on a cosmic balance that is beyond human understanding, Ecclesiastes enjoins readers to know that “the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun” – although, at the same time, one must “remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many” (Ecc. 11:7-8).
This cosmic equilibrium of light and darkness is present every moment of a person’s life, whether it is felt or remembered or exists as just a promise. After presenting such a picture, Ecclesiastes arrives at the verse stating, “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth ... but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” It emerges that Ecclesiastes’ counsel to the young man is not nihilistic at all, for this is not a “lawless state of affairs – where there are no judges and no laws!” However, neither is a regime being described whose guiding principle is “that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes.” Nor is it guided by the biblical code of ethics whose hallmark is “Depart from evil, and do good” (Psalms 34:15).
Ecclesiastes argues that it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil, and that one must enjoy the sweet light, but always remember not only the days of darkness that will come, but also the fact that God will ultimately judge all mortals in light of the choices they made in their lifetime, even though the intricacies of the divine system of judgment are hidden from human understanding, like the “bones … [growing] in the womb of her that is with child.” Thus, the only ethical choice people can make in the conditions of uncertainty presented to them by God is to remember that, after all the goodness, evil will appear and after all the evil, good will appear. In the final analysis, the only conclusion is that, in the ultimate balance of things in this world, everything is vanity.
Ecclesiastes does not teach readers to adopt a nihilistic form of behavior, but rather to deal intelligently with a nihilistic world. Whereas the sages have a clearly defined theory of reward and punishment, Ecclesiastes counsels readers to deal rationally in a world whose principles of reward and punishment are concealed from human eyes.
This is the final “Portion of the Week” column by Yakov Z. Meir. Starting next week, with Parashat Bereisheet, the column will be written by Yair Caspi.
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