Erica Brown
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The Book of Kohelet and a cup of joy

Sure, Ecclesiastes pitches existential dread, but its clusters of optimism remind us that there's a time for everything, even coffee

“Be Still” from Proverbs 46:10 makes a lot of sense on the side of a coffee mug. In the midst of a long and busy day, a little hot java can be the pause that refreshes. Put a dash of the Bible on the cup, and you’ve elevated the sanctity of your afternoon. You can snag it online for $19.99. I also found this on the inside of a floral coffee cup, “I will sing the Lord’s praise for He has been good to me” (Ps. 13:6), that adds a little lift every time you sip. “He restores my soul” (Ps. 23:3) gives credit to God and caffeine for bringing us back to life each morning.

But here’s what I didn’t expect when in the housewares section of a retail store: a mug with a saying from Ecclesiastes. I walked past it and immediately did a double-take. Having spent the past several years writing a commentary on the book, that cup had my name all over it. Imagine the possibilities: I’ll have a grande-skinny-iced hazelnut-almond foam-caramel frizzle with a squirt of existentialism, please.

Let’s face it, Kohelet is not exactly the book we associate with good tidings of warmth, relief, and liquid refreshment. It’s not what we want to wake up to as Mr. Coffee is bubbling the morning brew. The book cries out, “I am dark. I am unforgiving. I am a pit of bottomless despair.” And, just in case you think tomorrow will be different, there is nothing new under the sun, and all is vanity. Why don’t you put that in your to-go cup and head out for work?

That’s not to say there aren’t more positive highlights that might work. As a small prayer in the morning, I kinda like, “I gained more wealth than anyone before me in Jerusalem” (2:9) or, from the same chapter, “Wisdom is superior to folly as light is superior to darkness” (2:13). It is certainly better than the way Kohelet disses wisdom in chapter one: “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache” (1:18). You also need a 16-ounce mug — at least — for that one. Maybe front and back.

When I made mental designs of my own Ecclesiastes mug, I focused on clauses from chapter five like, “Dreaming leads to futility” (5:6), and “A lover of money never has his fill of money” (5:9). But that’s a lot to handle on the groggier mornings. Neither of those two quotes beats, “All his days he eats in darkness, with much vexation and grief and anger” (5:16). No thank you. Maybe I’ll just go back to bed.

There was one phrase from chapter five I could get behind: “Eat, drink and delight in pleasure” (5:17). I can even see a nice sideline business in matching dessert plates. In fact, that mandate of festivity appears seven times in this 12-chapter book, so I had a few good choices at hand. I wish I had any of them conveniently memorized when a friend who knew I was writing on Kohelet brazenly asked me, “Are you on Prozac yet?” She obviously had not seen these clusters of optimism that punctuate the book.

But my actual new cup used a different verse: “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). This is taken from the conclusion to one of Kohelet’s most famous sections, a group of verses that Bible scholar James Kugel includes in his volume on the Bible’s greatest poems. There is a time for everything — birth, death, planting, uprooting, war, peace, seeking, and losing — and, apparently coffee. The poem’s famous pairs follow no distinguishable pattern. Sometimes the positive noun or gerund goes first. Sometimes not. This alone suggests the randomness of what gets thrown at us in life and when. If everything has a time, then good is swallowed up by evil, but then the good eclipses the bad in the cycle. There is no stasis. Just as misery engulfs us, unhappiness swings back to joy. That’s a comfort.

The time poem became the lyrics to folksinger Peter Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” that was recorded by the Byrds, Nina Simone, and Dolly Parton. Seeger even sends a portion of his annual royalties to a non-profit in Israel since he didn’t write the lyrics. Waking up to great words with a great tune is not a bad way to start the day.

In the 16th century, Rabbi Elisha Gallico from Sefad explained that the phrase “a time for love and a time for hate” could either refer to different objects of these two opposite, vehement emotions or be a multi-layered response to the same life: “There is a time when one loves one’s life because of its goodness, and there are times when one hates one’s life because of its difficulties and problems.” That is what it means to be human. Like Kohelet, Rumi, in “The Guesthouse,” summons a palette of moods. He starts with joy then shifts: The dark thought, the shame, the malice/ meet them at the door laughing/and invite them in/ Be grateful for whoever comes/because each has been sent/ as a guide from beyond.

Kohelet encourages us to summon a wide range of feelings into our lives and to withhold judgment because each has a time and a purpose. Brace for the day in a spirit of acceptance. I’ll drink to that.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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