Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
KOHELES CHAPTER 1
KOHELES (or Koheleth) is the "pen name" of King Solomon. The name comes from the Hebrew root KAHAL, which means a "gathering" or "assembly". The Hebrew grammatical form of KOHELES means "the gatherer", and the name signifies that "he gathered much wisdom" (Rashi on v 1). It also signifies that he assembled the people (cf. Deut. 31:12). In the words of Midrash Koheles Rabbah: "Why was Solomon called Koheles? Because his words were spoken in the assembly of the people, as it is written, 'Then Solomon gathered (yaK'HAL) the elders of Israel ' (I Kings 8:1)". Likewise the traditional name for Koheles, ECCLESIASTES, is from the Greek word ECCLESIA, a regularly convoked assembly, and ECCLESIASTES is one who takes part in this assembly - i.e. the Preacher.
"The WORDS (DIVREI) of Koheles." (v 1) - "Wherever the text says DIVREI, 'the words of', these are words of REBUKE" (Rashi ad loc.). Solomon son of David - "a king the son of a king, a tzaddik the son of a tzaddik" (Midrash) - had pursued wisdom all his life. "When God said to Solomon, 'Ask what I should give you' and he asked not for silver and gold but only that 'You should give Your servant an understanding heart', holy spirit immediately rested upon him and he composed the book of Proverbs, Song of Songs and Koheles" (Midrash Koheles Rabbah). Solomon wrote Song of Songs in his youth, on the day of the dedication of the Temple ; then in his prime he composed Proverbs, the rich fruits of his wisdom. But having reached the very heights, he fell to the lowest depths (as we shall see in the commentary on v 12). Finally, at the end of his life, after having seen everything, he composed Koheles - his last testament to his people: REBUKE.
The wisest man that ever lived comes in Koheles to clarify what is man's destiny and purpose in this world, and what he should do to fulfill it. Everything leads up to the conclusion of the work: "The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man" (Koheles 12:13). The intent of Koheles may to some extent be compared with that of the book of Job, which also examines man's existential situation and possible solutions as to how we may come to terms with it. While the approach and structure of the two works are radically different, they both consider the most fundamental questions in life with astonishing boldness and candor.
Perhaps it was this very boldness and candor that almost lost the book of Koheles its place in the Bible canon ordained by the sages, who argued as to whether it should be included. "The sages sought to hide away Koheles because his words contradict one another. Then why did they not hide it away? Because it begins with words of Torah and ends with words of Torah." (Talmud Shabbos 30b, where the "contradictions" between Koheles 7:3 and 2:2 and between 8:15 and 2:2 are reconciled). The dispute over the inclusion of Koheles in the canon is also discussed in Mishneh Yadayim 3:5, where the Tosephta explains that those opposed to its inclusion maintained that it consisted of Solomon's own wisdom.
The prevailing opinion, however, is that it was composed through holy spirit. For this very reason we must bear in mind that in our study of the divinely-inspired last testament of the wisest man that ever lived, we can touch little more than the surface of a work that is replete with infinite layers upon layers of Pshat (simple meaning), Remez (allusion), Drush (midrashic interpretation) and Sod (esoteric wisdom). As we learn these holy words, our aim should be to derive personal lessons that we can apply in our own lives as to how to know and fear God and serve Him through practical action: ASIYAH.
The opening section of Koheles (vv 2-11), a complete parshah in itself, is a hauntingly poetic evocation of man's existential situation in this world of endless repeated cycles - the cycles of the generations, the planets, the waters of the rivers and the sea.
"Vanity (1) of vanities (2). vanity (1) of vanities (2), all is vanity (1)" (verse 1). The Hebrew word traditionally translated as "vanity", HEVEL, means a "vapor", something barely substantial or tangible. Taking into account the singular and plural forms of the word HEVEL in the verse, a total of SEVEN "vanities" are enumerated, corresponding to the Seven Days of Creation and the seven "Sefiros of Construction" (Chessed-Gevurah-Tiferes-Netzach-Hod-Yesod-Malchus). "Koheles cries out and complains that the entire work of the Seven Days of Creation is all vanity of vanities!!!" (Rashi on v 2).
"What profit does a man have in all his labor with which he labors under the sun" (verse 3). In this verse King Solomon poses man's most fundamental existential question: What is the purpose of all his efforts in this world? The Talmud points out that Solomon is specifically asking about man's efforts "under the sun". "It is from his labor 'under the sun' that he has no profit, but his labor in the realm that existed before the sun he does have profit. And which is that? This is his labor in the Torah!" (Shabbos 30b). In other words, Solomon is asking what people gain when they devote all their endeavors to the transient material world instead of laboring in Torah, which brings an eternal reward.
"Under the sun" (v 3): "This signifies ever-changing time. For the sun alone gives birth to time, for the day depends on the sun from the time it rises to the time it sets, while night is from the time the sun sets until the time it rises. Likewise sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter all depend on the inclination of the sun to the north or south. Even though the moon and stars all have their influence, it cannot be compared to that of the sun" (Ibn Ezra ad loc.) "Therefore the sun is called the 'king of the skies' (Jer. 44:17). Solomon is saying: What is the benefit of all of a person's acquisitions in this world when surely tomorrow he will die taking nothing in his hand?" (Metzudas David on v 3).
"One generation passes away and another generation comes." (v 4) - "No matter how much the villain toils to steal and rob, he cannot outlive and enjoy his gains because his generation passes away and another generation comes and takes everything from the hands of his children, as it says, 'his children will conciliate the poor'" (Job 20:10; Rashi on v 4). ".but the earth endures for ever" (v 4) - "And who are those who endure? The meek and lowly who lower themselves down to the earth, as it says, '.and the meek shall inherit the earth'" (Psalms 37:11; Rashi on v 4).
Verses 5-6 describe the endless daily circuits of the sun in summer and winter, while verse 7 evokes the endless recycling of water from the rivers into the sea and back again to the rivers. "All things are laboring." (v 8) - "This continues from the question above, 'What profit does a man have.' (v 3): If instead of engaging in Torah one follows idle pursuits, they all involve constant labor and he cannot attain everything. If he goes after sights, his eye will not be satisfied; if he goes after sounds, his ear will not be filled" (Rashi on v 8).
"That which has been is that which shall be, and there is nothing new under the sun" (v 9). This refers to the created material world, but not to the realm of the Torah, where our studies can constantly generate new understandings (CHIDUSHIM; see Rashi on v 9). "He is saying that just as there is nothing new in the created world, so this fundamental fact will never change - that nothing in this world ever yields the gains for which one hopes in one's labor and exertion, just as nothing ever has in the past" (Metzudas David ad loc.). Even if we imagine we have found something new "under the sun" that might indicate that this fundamental fact of the futility of devotion to material pursuits has changed, this is an illusion, because this seemingly new thing has in fact already been (v 10). It is just that nobody is left from the earlier generations to remember it, just as nobody in generations to come will remember us (v 11).
"I KOHELES WAS KING OVER ISRAEL IN JERUSALEM " (v 12)
Following the prologue to his book, King Solomon now presents his "credentials" for writing it. "I Koheles WAS king." (v 12). "King over all the world. Then in the end king over Israel . Then in the end king over Jerusalem alone. And finally, over nothing by my walking stick! For it says, 'I WAS king in Jerusalem ' - i.e. but now I am not king" (Rashi ad loc.). "When King Solomon sat on his royal throne his heart swelled because of his wealth and he transgressed God's decree, gathering many horses, chariots and riders, silver and gold, intermarrying with foreign nations. Immediately God's anger was aroused and He sent Ashmodai king of the demons to drive him from his royal throne. He took the ring from his hand, forcing him to wander around in exile in order to chastise him. He went round all the cities of Israel weeping and crying, 'I am Koheles, who was called Solomon. Before this I was king over Israel in Jerusalem !!!" (Targum on verse 12).
Just as the most successful of worldly kings, Nebuchadnezzar, was driven from his throne and brought down to the level of a wild beast in order to chastise him for his pride (Daniel chapter 4), so King Solomon, the Torah king who literally had everything - wisdom, wealth, women, power, glory, palaces, gardens, attendants, singers - had to be cast down to the very bottom in order to rise to the ultimate wisdom.
"I gave my heart to seek and search out through wisdom." (v 13). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Solomon used his Torah wisdom to contemplate and understand the whole futile world of wickedness "under the sun", coming to the conclusion that everything was created by God to test man through being exposed to the need to choose between life and goodness on the one hand and death and evil on the other (cf. Metzudas David ad loc.).
In vv 16ff Solomon explains that even the pursuit of wisdom can be dangerous and break a person's heart - "for with too much wisdom a person depends on his own wisdom and does not avoid what the Torah prohibits, causing God great anger" (Rashi on v 17). Moreover, "a wise person understands the true nature of men's deeds and when he sees that they are not good, he himself becomes angry because these things are contrary to his will, and anger is very damaging. And someone who understands one thing from another increases his pain because he can now understand the consequences of his own faulty behavior and this brings pain to his heart" (Metzudas David on v 18).
"I said in my heart, Let me try you (i.e. myself) with mirth" (v 1). In the words of Rashi (ad loc.): "Since it is so (i.e. since wisdom is dangerous and painful) let me stop pursuing wisdom and devote myself to SIMCHAH (happiness and joy) at all times". Those seeking to fulfill Rabbi Nachman's "great mitzvah to be in Simchah at all times" will surely want to know the lessons Koheles teaches based on his trying out the path of happiness and joy as an answer to man's existential dilemma.
These lessons are brought out in the Talmudic resolution of one of the apparent "contradictions" in Koheles. Here he says, "I said of laughter, It is mad; and of Simchah, What does this accomplish" (v 2) whereas later on he says, "And I PRAISED Simchah." (ch 8 v 15). "'And I praised Simchah.' - This is the Simchah of a mitzvah. '.and of Simchah, What does this accomplish?' - This is Simchah that is not connected with any mitzvah. This comes to teach you that the Shechinah does not rest in a state of sadness or lethargy or through laughter, light headedness, chatter and idle pursuits but through the Simchah of a mitzvah" (Shabbos 30b).
In verse 3 Solomon explains that in pursuit of his goal of understanding if Simchah is the purpose of life, he sought to continue guiding his heart with wisdom while simultaneously indulging in "wine" and laying hold of "folly" (SICHLUS). The latter refers to all the things that people crave for in the material world, such as beautiful buildings, musical instruments, etc. (see Metzudas David ad loc.).
In verses 4-10 Solomon describes his palaces, orchards, gardens, fountains, servants, sheep and cattle, gold, silver and other treasures and delights. "Does the text tell us only about Solomon's wealth? It is surely speaking only about Torah. 'I built myself houses' - synagogues and study halls. 'I planted vineyards' - these are the Torah scholars, who sit in rows as in a vineyard. 'I made myself gardens and orchards' - these are the MISHNAYOS. 'I planted in them every kind of fruit tree' - this is the Talmud. 'I made myself fountains of water' - these are the preachers. 'To water the forest with them' - these are the children. 'I acquired male and female servants' - these are the gentiles. 'And also cattle, oxen and sheep' - these are the sacrifices. 'I also gathered silver and gold' - these are words of Torah. 'I acquired men singers and women singers' - these are the Tosephtas. '.and delights' - these are the aggadas (narrative midrash)." (Koheles Rabbah).
".and THIS was MY share from all my labor" (v 10) - "And after my having done all this, I have nothing from all of it except THIS. One of the pair of Talmudic rabbis, Rav and Shmuel, said that THIS refers to his walking stick while the other said it refers to the earthenware pot from which he drank" (Rashi ad loc.; Gittin 68b). In other words, after his downfall, left with nothing but his stick and a primitive mug, Solomon realized that all his endeavors to pursue Simchah "under the sun" were nothing but vanity and striving after wind (v 11).
Having followed one possible answer to the existential dilemma to its ultimate conclusion only to find it a dead end, in verse 12 Solomon turns to clarify how the pathway of wisdom (i.e. Torah wisdom, Rashi on v 12) is superior to madness and folly (i.e. sin and the embrace of the material world). "For what can the man do who comes after the king?" (v 12) - "How can a man despise folly as if he is wiser than the King of the world, seeing that He has already created folly? Even though it is proper to despise folly, nevertheless He has not created it for nothing, for the superiority of wisdom is revealed precisely through the contrast with folly, without which the beauty of wisdom would not be recognized, because a thing can only be know in relation to its opposite, just as the benefit of light is known only through darkness, which is its opposite." (Metzudas David on vv 12-13).
In verses 14ff Solomon explains that wisdom is superior to folly even though the wise man and the fool both die in the end. This existential fact poses a challenging question to the wise man (v 15), but Solomon rejects the possibility that the eternal destiny of the wise man after death could possibly be identical with that of the fool (v 16, see Targum, Rashi and Metzudas David ad loc.).
In verses 17ff Solomon explains another vexing issue for the wise man - that after all his efforts "under the sun", when he leaves this world all his achievements are liable to fall into the hands of someone who may not be wise or worthy at all. The issue was greatly sharpened for Solomon himself by the fact that he knew prophetically that in the reign of his son and successor Rehaboam, the kingdom would split, leading to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple and the exile of Israel (see Targum on Koleles 1:2).
This thought almost brought Solomon to the point of despair (v 20) until he came to a new conclusion: "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor" (v 24). "Rabbi Yonah said: Wherever the concept of eating and drinking appears in this Megillah, it is speaking of Torah and good deeds" (Koheles Rabbah). In other words, true joy in this world comes through doing one's best to pursue the path of Torah and mitzvos. ".But this also I saw - that this is from the hand of God" (v 24). It is a gift of God to reach this level. If so, we must earnestly ask and beg Him to grant us this precious gift.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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