Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot / The Sun of Ecclesiastes

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“Sun Setting over a Lake,” by Joseph Mallord William Turner (c.1840).
Yakov Z. Meyer

Images of light and darkness frame the Book of Ecclesiastes (named for its author, who is called Kohelet in Hebrew). In the opening verses, the author explains: “Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. The wise man, his eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness. And I also perceived that one event happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14).

Initially, the gap between wisdom and folly is compared to the gap between light and darkness, and it thus appears to the reader that, like light and darkness, wisdom and folly are antonyms. Wisdom, says the author of Ecclesiastes, is like light because wisdom enables wise men to see, whereas the fool sees nothing and is like someone who walks in the dark.

However, the author’s surprising conclusion at the end of the verse negates the breadth of this dichotomous image and causes it to collapse: “And I also perceived that one event happeneth to them all.” Light and darkness are “one event” – the same event: Everyone dies in the end and thus there is really no difference between light and darkness.

Toward the end of the book, the author instructs the reader: “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” (Eccles. 11:6). One must work in the morning and in the evening, because nobody knows whether the morning is better than the evening or whether the evening is better than the morning. Perhaps, Ecclesiastes suggests, both are good.

The context of the verses, however, wherein a person’s youth and old age are compared, indicates that morning and evening should be interpreted as references to the beginning and end of a person’s life. They are not the same thing, they are different, although the precise difference between them is unknown. Because we do not know the difference between them, they are, says Ecclesiastes, equal. Nonetheless, the next verse, which clearly uses light and darkness as metaphors for a person’s youth and old age, point to a difference: “And the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun. For if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity” (11:7-8).

Although no one knows whether morning is preferable to evening or vice versa, light is sweet and good for the eyes and it is clear that it is a source of joy. But, in every person’s life, the years of happiness that are full of light and are a period when one can see clearly are followed by long years of old age, “the days of darkness.” Ecclesiastes instructs young people to remember that their years of light – their youth – will inevitably be followed by old age and years of darkness. In this sense, Ecclesiastes seeks to teach the reader that light and darkness coexist in the life of every person: Light is the experience of the present, while darkness is a reminder of the fate that awaits all.

Conversely, Ecclesiastes reminds the elderly reader that not everything is darkness: “Therefore remove vexation from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh; for childhood and youth are vanity” (11:10). In the final analysis, both light and darkness will be negated when a person ultimately stands before God: “but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (11:9).

Ecclesiastes, who portrays a dichotomy and then refutes it, speaks of a world that has diametrically opposed ethical, emotional and aesthetic functions, and then looks at that bipolar axis from another perspective, painting black and white with a single shade of color. Chapter after chapter, this exhausting intellectual and emotional process accompanies the reader and eventually creates a strategy of reading. After contemplating Ecclesiastes for a while, the reader learns never to take any of the book’s statements at face value. Even before Ecclesiastes refutes a statement, the reader will experience doubt about that statement’s validity. This is precisely what Ecclesiastes wants to happen to the reader.

One can then understand the opening verses of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; and the earth abideth forever” (Eccles. 1:2-4). People labor under the sun, generations come and go, but the earth remains stable and never changes.

Up until now, it seems that reality is divided into permanent and transitory: The earth is permanent, while each person who comes and goes under the sun is transitory. Together with the earth, the sun is part of the world’s permanent décor. However, in the next verse, Ecclesiastes states: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he ariseth” (1:5). Together with the rivers and everything else on earth, the sun too becomes a metaphor for what is transient and momentary – a metaphor for a human life.

People, however, are not really transient: Although generations come and go, they will continue to come and go in the future as well. Their very transience is of a permanent nature; like the transition from light to darkness, the transition from childhood to old age is permanent. According to Ecclesiastes, the sun is the best possible metaphor to describe a person’s life: It defines the boundaries and rhythm of life, the continually changing quality of life and the permanence of its repetitiveness.

Perhaps because of its usefulness as a metaphor, the sun appears frequently in the Book of Ecclesiastes as a stable and permanent element in a person’s life, and as the entity that is responsible for both light and darkness, for the memory of darkness when there is light and vice versa, and for the memory of light when there is darkness and vice versa. At the same time, the sun negates the differences between light and darkness, and reminds the reader that everything is but sheer vanity.