“Havel havalim amar Kohelet; havel havalim hakol havel – Utter futility! Said Kohelet – Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there in all the gains a person makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever…only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; Ein chadash tachat hashamesh – there is nothing new beneath the sun!”
Depressing, realistic, cynical – or all three?
In the mid-1990s, I taught a year-long weekly seminar at my synagogue on the book of Ecclesiastes and its rabbinic commentary in Kohelet Rabbah. I began with thirty-five students. After a year, five remained.
I was assured by a number of the students that the drop in enrollment wasn’t because I was a bad teacher, though I wondered.
The following year, I taught another year-long seminar on the thought and writings of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. We began with about fifty students and retained most everyone.
I confess that I was relieved and thank Heschel for saving me!
What was the difference between the two classes? Those who delved into the thought of Ecclesiastes wanted to kill themselves whereas Heschel inspired them! Ecclesiastes depressed the “Kohelet drop-outs” because they didn’t want to spend their Sundays engaged with cynicism/realism (depending how you read the book). They voted down Ecclesiastes with their feet. I have always, by the way, found the book fascinating – but that’s me!
The scroll of Ecclesiastes is the text, nevertheless, from the collection of Writings that we read every year during the festival of Sukkot. Given it’s depressing themes, why would we do that? Sukkot, after all, is called “Z’man sim’cha-tei-nu – a time of our joy.” We greet one another with these words during the holiday: “Moadim l’simchah – May you be joyful during this time.”
Some scholars suggest that Ecclesiastes was an argument against the ancient Greek pagan world when bacchanalian orgies and wild celebrations were taking place. The rabbis thought that reading Ecclesiastes would kick the Jew in the gut and slap his face, recalling Cher slapping the love-sick John Cusack in “Moonstruck” and shouting – “Snap out of it!”
The theme of the changing seasons, as described in the first chapter of the scroll, may be the real reason this text was matched with Sukkot, though Ecclesiastes is a philosophical oddity and counter to the rabbinic worldview. Its philosophy is Greek, not Jewish – though the Rabbinic Midrash attempts valiantly to spin the book as a reflection of rabbinic theology. One can imagine Kohelet taking the Aristotelian and modern scientific view that nothing has ever been created or destroyed, that God as Creator is a necessary truth for the masses of Jews who need not only to believe in a commanding God but also recognize that there must be a higher moral authority when ordering Jewish society, thus giving ultimate meaning to our lives.
The question is – was Ecclesiastes right when he proclaimed – “There is nothing new under the sun!” Did he mean to say that this is the world as it’s always been and ever will be and that nothing we think, feel and create as human beings is ever new?
The 1996 Nobel Prize acceptance speech for literature by the Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska is eloquent. She insisted that, yes, there is something new under the sun – each and every day. She addressed Kohelet directly in these words:
“I sometimes dream of situations that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I bow very deeply before him, because he is one of the greatest poets, for me at least. Then I grab his hand. ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’ That’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress under which you’re sitting hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by the way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you’re planning to work on now? A further supplement to thoughts you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy – so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt that you’ll say, ‘I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.’ There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.”
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked if he had the power to revive the dead. He answered: “Reviving the dead isn’t the problem; reviving the living is far more difficult!”
Certainly, nature has set its course; but the human being is a thinking, creating and transcendent being, and we do indeed, I believe, have the capacity to create ourselves anew in every moment and thus improve ourselves (tikkun hanefesh) and the world (tikkun olam).
This series of Holidays from the beginning of Elul through the High Holidays, Sukkot and Simchat Torah is our season for the Jewish people to celebrate spiritual rebirth and renewal. Our world view is a challenge to Kohelet. Yes, there is something new under the sun! Everything!
Moadim l’simchah and Shabbat Shalom.