At its core, Progressivism asserts that social and economic problems are solvable, and that people, working with technology, intelligence and good faith, can improve the human condition. In that sense, the book of Kohelet is deeply conservative. “Sof davar hakol nishma — The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” Some might argue that this is a happy ending, in which Kohelet understands how, at last, to transcend the problem of his own mortality and live a meaningful life. However, it is also his understanding, following a lifetime of achievement and experience, that none of it really mattered in the long run. The structural problems he sees are intractable and unchangeable; any progress he can point to is more illusion than accomplishment.
Kohelet’s conclusion is similar in substance to Jeb Bush’s response to yet another mass shooting in America, nearly the thousandth since Sandy Hook. In resisting the call for new gun control legislation, Bush said, “look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something. And it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.” Sadly, Bush may well be correct. As President Obama himself noted in his own response, there is now a gun in circulation for every single American. In other words, the status quo, in which America far and away leads the developed world in gun violence, will continue, inexorably, even if Congress were to pass comprehensive reform tomorrow.
According to rabbinic tradition, Kohelet is the work of an aged King Solomon, life-weary and defeated, reflecting on how “one generation passes, and another generation comes; And the earth abides for ever.” That same weariness visibly bore down on President Obama as he called again in the wake of tragedy for gun control legislation that will never reach his desk, and will not matter on the ground, at least for the foreseeable future, even if it does.
It is the same frustrated, angry weariness that must be the pervasive feeling in Israel today. For all that politicians and pundits may speak about “breaking the cycle of violence,” the stark reality may well be that there is nothing that can be done. An entire generation of Palestinians has been raised to resist Israel and hate Israelis, even to the point of brutal violence. On the other hand, Israel and Israelis are not going anywhere, not on either side of the Green Line. The response Netanyahu decides to pursue will not change this fundamental problem, nor will anything that could possibly be said and done on the Palestinian side.
Perhaps, though, the true wisdom of Kohelet is not in the conclusion. Until the final verses, he struggles to build something enduring, to achieve something with eternal purpose, exploring every avenue of the human experience along the way. Even if he concludes that simply keeping God’s commandments is “kol ha-adam – all of man,” I get the sense that he accepts it begrudgingly. In the end, the Book of Kohelet is the testament of a heroic lifetime spent in relentless pursuit of advancement, of trying to solve problems, discover meaning, and find ways forward, even in the face of challenges that proved insurmountable. This is why Bush’s glib reaction was so troubling, if not disqualifying, from a candidate for a position even more powerful than Solomon’s in his day. At least Solomon tried.
The circular perspective of Kohelet presages the hakafot — circuits — of Simchat Torah, marking the end and beginning of yet another annual Torah cycle. On one level, the juxtaposition reminds us not to get our hopes too high. As we begin the Torah anew, Kohelet reminds us that we’ve been here before, not too long ago, and things are not much better since then. On another, perhaps more fundamental level, Kohelet also teaches us that well-lived lives are full of new beginnings, new attempts to solve problems, and new approaches to the challenges we face, even while knowing that there is nothing new under the sun. Sometimes progress means running in circles, powered by the massive effort it takes, in the face of everything, to not give up until the final, tired breath.