One should read Ecclesiastes at least once as it is read in Ashkenazi synagogues on the Shabbat that falls during Hol Hamo’ed (the intermediary days of Sukkot): from beginning to end, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. Ecclesiastes is an exception on the biblical landscape with its relatively late linguistic style (which is particularly obvious because it resembles modern Hebrew), its existential, universalistic subjects and, especially, its irony and skepticism. Reading Ecclesiastes is enjoyable but disturbing.
Ecclesiastes’ author opens with: “Utter futility! – said Koheleth – Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets – and glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, turning northward, ever turning blows the wind; on its rounds the wind returns. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place [from] which they flow the streams flow back again. ... Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new beneath the sun!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9).
What do we have left if we acknowledge that our lives are futile, and that the uniqueness and usefulness we attribute to them are lost in the presence of the cycles of nature? Or, as the author succinctly describes the situation, “What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?”
Ecclesiastes is considered to be a pessimistic, despairing text, although a few optimistic statements surface: “Go, eat your bread in gladness” (Eccles. 9:7); or, “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love” (Eccles. 9:9). However, the positive assertions scattered throughout the book seem disconnected from its overall outlook – that “all is futile.”
Many scholars thus regard Ecclesiastes as eclectic, incoherent. As explained in the Talmud, some scholars even considered excluding it from the biblical canon because “its statements contradict one another.” In his lovely, recently published book “Under the Sun” (in Hebrew), Israeli biblical scholar Shamai Gelander suggests reading Ecclesiastes in its entirety and discusses its major ideas (and religious philosophy, a topic I hope to address on another occasion). According to Gelander, Ecclesiastes is not a pessimistic, nihilistic work, but instead proposes the proper path individuals should follow in life.
However, this path is paved by means of harsh criticism of other options, whose common denominator, argues Gelander, is the attempt to flee from the present, or even from life itself. One of these options involves an “escape” into the future: striving on behalf of the coming generations, hoping to be remembered forever, although we cannot predict who in the next generation will be our heirs: “So, too, I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun. For I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me – and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? – and he will control all the wealth that I gained by toil and wisdom under the sun. ... For sometimes a person whose fortune was made with wisdom, knowledge, and skill must hand it on to be the portion of somebody who did not toil for it. That too is futile, and a grave evil” (Eccles. 2:18-21). Nor can we rely on the foreseeable future. We may save up for a rainy day, but in vain: “Here is a grave evil … riches hoarded by their owner to his misfortune, in that those riches are lost in some unlucky venture; and if he begets a son, he has nothing in hand” (Eccles. 5:12-13).
Yet nostalgia for the past is also not a solution: “Don’t say, ‘How has it happened that former times were better than these?’ For it is not wise of you to ask that question” (Eccles. 7:10). Also our past cannot console us: Ecclesiastes’ author identifies himself as King Solomon, the wisest individual on Earth, and yet his wisdom cannot offer solace. Quite the contrary: “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache” (Eccles. 1:18). Granted, he admits: “I found that wisdom is superior to folly as light is superior to darkness” (Eccles. 2:13). Ostensibly, this is a wide gap, but Gelander reminds us that, when it comes to the cycles of nature, which Ecclesiastes constantly mentions, light is not substantially superior to darkness, because darkness and light alternate in our world. Indeed, the text goes on to state that wise and foolish individuals share the same outcome: “But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both” (Eccles. 2:14).
Then where can optimism be found – what is not futile? The answer is clinging to the present, recognizing the relative value of everything, and remembering that there is a time for every action: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: A time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; a time for slaying and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up; a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing; a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding; a time for ripping and a time for sewing, a time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccles. 3:1-8).
People who believe “all is futile” do not pin their hopes on any lofty goal, but instead scatter their efforts in various directions: “Send your bread forth upon the waters; for after many days you will find it. Distribute portions to seven or even to eight, for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth” (Eccles. 11:1-2). Nor do such people seek perfection: “So don’t overdo goodness” (Eccles. 7:16). Recognizing our limitations, we can rejoice with what we have: “How sweet is the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them. … O youth, enjoy yourself while you are young! Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth. Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes” (Eccles. 11:7-9).
In general, explains Gelander, Ecclesiastes believes that life – even when it is humiliating – is preferable to death: “Even a live dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccles. 9:4). Acknowledgment of our mortality actually emphasizes why life is preferable to death, “since the living know they will die. But the dead know nothing; they have no more recompense, for even the memory of them has died. Their loves, their hates, their jealousies have long since perished” (Eccles. 9:5-6). Therefore: “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God” (Eccles. 9:7).