The prevalence of injustice. The futility of labor and wealth. The shared destinies of man and animal, the wise man and the fool, the righteous and the wicked. The body’s slow decline before death. The struggle to find joy and meaning in a precarious and consistently disappointing existence.
A heavy read on any day, Kohelet seems like an unlikely choice for the most joyful of Jewish holidays. But some cite this apparent contradiction as the very reason we read it on the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot or on Shemini Atzeret (depending on the calendar and custom). Early in the book, the author sneers at celebration: “Of revelry I said, it is mad; of merriment, what good is that?” In this view, Kohelet adds a note of sobriety to the festivities.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that pessimism is the overarching theme of Kohelet. In fact, it may be the most life-affirming book of the Bible.
Together with Proverbs and Job, Kohelet belongs to the “wisdom literature” of Scripture. In contrast with the Torah, Prophets, and most of the Writings, the wisdom books explore universal, human themes; nationalism is completely absent.
Proverbs is the most straightforward endorsement of wisdom in this set. The author maintains that living according to the principles of wisdom is the natural path to happiness and prosperity. The rewards of wisdom are in this world; in these books, heavenly justice is not reserved for the afterlife.
Kohelet is unique among the books of wisdom in that it questions — and nearly undermines — the value of wisdom itself. And not for lack of effort or experience. Wisdom failed the author; his vast knowledge, acquired over a lifetime, only brought him pain: “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increases knowledge, increases sorrow.”
Kohelet — the book and the author — looks beyond wisdom for meaning. But the answers do not come easily. His circuitous search for the highest good is marked by vacillation and blatant contradictions; the book is more intellectual memoir than systematic philosophy. In one verse Kohelet advises, “Be not overly righteous” and, in the very next (deliberately, of course), “Be not overly wicked.” Some passages celebrate happiness, wisdom, and property; in others, these achievements are vilified. At his most desperate he declares, “therefore, I hated life”; later, “I therefore praised joy.”
Kohelet frustrated the ancient rabbis and the book was nearly excluded from the canon of Scripture. Aside from its internal contradictions, some of Kohelet’s more nihilistic ideas sounded heterodox. According to the Midrash, “they sought to consign the Book of Kohelet to the archive, for they found in it statements that are inclined towards heresy.” Its canonicity was ultimately affirmed.
The rabbis realized that to discern its message, Kohelet must be read holistically. The book may be a winding meditation, but it does not lack direction.
Kohelet’s conclusion draws on, but overcomes, its tentative despair. Wisdom, joy, work, possessions, and pleasure are suspect but, in the end, vindicated; they are God’s gifts to be embraced and enjoyed. Life may sometimes feel futile, amounting to nothing but “vanity and vexation of spirit.” But life is also fleeting, so man must savor its joys while he is still able.
Kohelet’s initial obsession with human mortality (especially in the last chapter’s stark allegory of physical deterioration) leads him, finally, to affirm life. Death is the best reminder to live wisely — “It is better to go the house of mourning than to go the house of feasting. For that is the end of all men, and the living should take it to heart.”
Rather than tempering the joy of Sukkot, Kohelet enhances it. And no biblical book is more suited to follow the Days of Awe. Midrash Kohelet Rabba tells us that at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, a heavenly voice calls out one of our book’s concluding verses: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted your actions.”
After the intense self-reflection and spiritual renewal of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we have earned the right to delight in — and give thanks for — the summer’s bounty, especially before the dark, cold winter sets in. Kohelet insists that we thoroughly enjoy every moment, while we can.