The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which is read on the Shabbat of the intermediate days of Sukkot, is filled with timeless aphorisms, some more easily understood than others. One particularly curious saying comes near the end of the book: “The words of the wise are like goads and like nails driven in (well planted) – from the composers of collections (masters of assemblies), given from a certain shepherd.” (12:11) This obscure verse might be seen as an appropriate conclusion to a book, written in a somewhat cynical fashion, to “goad” its readers into taking their lives seriously. While attempting to discern its actual meaning is speculative, it might be taken to mean that this collection of the sayings of the wise, sourced from a single shepherd (perhaps, God), might sting or hurt in goading a person to find a fitting way to live. (See R. Alter’s notes to his translation; A. Shinan, Megillat Kohelet – A New Israeli Commentary, p. 236)
One rabbinic interpretation took this verse in an entirely different direction, using it as a means for establishing a self-understanding of the rabbinic interpretive enterprise: “Why are the words of the Torah likened to a goad? To teach you that just as the goad directs the heifer along its furrow in order to bring forth life to the world, so the words of the Torah direct those who study them from the paths of death to the paths of life. But [should you think] that just as the goad can be moved (hence, impermanent) so the words of the Torah are impermanent; therefore, the text says: ‘nails’ (which hold it in place). But [should you think] that just as the nail wears away and do not grow, so, too, the words of the Torah wear away and do not grow; therefore, the text says: ‘well planted’; just as a plant grows and increases, so the words of the Torah grow and increase. ‘The masters of assemblies’: these are the disciples of the wise, who sit in many assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit. Should a man say: Now, how can I learn Torah [when there so many competing ideas]? Therefore, the text says: ‘All of them are given from one Shepherd’. One God gave them; one leader (Moshe) said them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: ‘And God spoke all these words’ (Exodus 20:1).” (Hagigah 3b)
If we dissect this teaching, we learn that the sages held the Torah to be both eternal, permanent, and yet, forever growing and open to varying opinions. The sages readily acknowledge this anomaly, asserting that, nevertheless, despite what might seem difficult for humans to comprehend, multiple interpretations have their foundation in the will of God. This teaching bears out the very nature of rabbinic Judaism’s dialectic search for religious truth that so many of us find to be one of its most attractive aspects.