What a week! This week began for my wife and me with the birth of our first grandchild and ended with the reading of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes on Shabbat. What a juxtaposition! What a contrast! The first, the birth, creates all kinds of excitement: intense love and enthusiasm in the present and hope/anticipation for a wonderful future for the new baby, a desire to protect and serve the new life, plus, of course, anxiety. The second – the Leonard Cohen of the biblical books – is generally a real downer: Everything is futile, there’s no point to anything.
So, I felt a bit whiplashed, as I guess you can understand.
However, as I sat there in the service reading Kohelet in English while the Rabbi motored through it in Hebrew, I started to have some appreciation and sympathy for Kohelet. The contrast remained. But because of what I felt thinking about the new grandchild, I began to think I saw why he was so depressed and what was missing to give him such a negative outlook on life.
I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Kohelet but it seems to me that Kohelet was looking for meaning in life – and simply not finding it where he was looking for it. So, riches, power, hedonistic excess, research and study – all of these disappointed him. Why? The reason seems to me to be that in each and every case Kohelet was using a self-centred and self-absorbed and self-oriented viewpoint. What can power do for ME, if I’m only going to die and before I die, somebody stronger can overcome me? What is the point of MY having riches if I can’t enjoy them after I die or if, no matter how rich I am, an economic reverse could take it all away from me? What good is MY having fun if the fun doesn’t last? Those are the questions which Kohelet asks and those are the questions he answers with “there is no purpose, all is vanity”.
Even when Kohelet seems to be prescribing “the good life”, he’s rather constrained: Love your spouse, do your job, try to be satisfied, he says while not ascribing any particular meaning to this. He certainly does not say that these kinds of things defeat the “vanity” of life.
So here’s my thought: I note that Kohelet does not say, “I loved my wife and found it unsatisfying”. He does not say, “I worked hard to raise one or more decent children whom I love and whom I have taught to love others, and found it unsatisfying”. He does not say, “I tried to do my job as well as I could to bring value to the world and benefit to others, and found it unsatisfying”. He never says, “I set out to do my little bit to make the world better for others, and found it unsatisfying”. At no time is he referencing his impact on others. All centers around what he was doing to/for himself and how it affected himself (only).
At no time does he give any indication that he ever felt the intense desire to protect and serve another that every parent and grandparent feels at the birth of a child.
If I’m reading Kohelet correctly, Kohelet’s tragedy, is that he did not, ever, feel what I and most others feel or felt when marrying the one one loves (and not a political asset), when seeing one’s child born (and not one’s dynastic successor), when watching the child – and later grandchildren – grow to emulate one as decent human beings (and not as rivals to one’s position). He never felt that inner satisfaction that comes from helping others. He simply never tried “meaningless” acts of random kindness.
And so, Kohelet is pointing indirectly, negatively, but clearly at that which gives meaning to human life. Our ability to love, to teach, to guide, to influence and assist others. Whether spouse, child, grandchild or complete stranger, helping another is not self-sacrifice but self-actualization.
Kohelet’s book can be summarized thus: If I am only for me, what’s the good of it?
Not everybody is blessed with the spouse, children and grandchildren they may deserve. And, it is probable that undue concentration of all one’s efforts on one’s spouse, children and grandchildren might well be potentially destructive to their self-actualization. But there’s a wide world out there. There are innumerable causes and individuals, groups and institutions which can benefit from one’s efforts.
William Shakespear said, presumably channelling his inner-Kohelet, that “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” To which I say, first, “so what?” Even if the dice are loaded, do you want to live as if you’ve already lost the game? What kind of example is that for those closest to you? Truly such an attitude, if allowed to govern behaviour, will mean that everything is “vanity”. Sure, we may see problems, but that doesn’t mean we have to assume they will defeat us!
But, in fact, there is a second, more important point. And that is that there are, and have been and always will be, so many examples of people who have made lasting “good works” even though they subsequently died, that Shakespear’s comment is meaningless and irrelevant. Most parents, numerous scientists, many politicians, philosophers, doctors, building contractors, inventors and many others have done good things, and have had the results both live on and expand after their deaths and despite their deaths. True, most do not have monuments proclaiming their successes. Most may, in fact, be anonymous. But bit by bit, incrementally, the good one does improves the world. The world has shown appreciation to many — but never enough and we always miss appreciating somebody! But that does not negate the efforts they made nor the satisfaction that one can feel from service nor the value of the work done.
So the birth of this grandchild does not give the lie to Kohelet or mean that we should stop reading the book. No, within Kohelet’s terms and frame of reference, he was perfectly correct in his observations. This birth of this grandchild (and any birth of any grandchild) proximate to the reading of Kohelet creates pity and sympathy for Kohelet – the poor man never realized that all he needed to do was reach out to others and then use whatever he had (position, power, riches, intelligence, brute strength, whatever) for the benefit of others. All he had to do was try to translate that feeling of intense desire to benefit another that one feels the first time one holds one’s child or grandchild onto another and the world at large, and he would have been fulfilled.
There is lots of room for improvement in the world, lots of opportunity for service to others. Let the world, and others, be your grandchild!