Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
KOHELES CHAPTER 3
The conventional chapter breaks in Koheles in our printed Bibles whether in Hebrew or translation are mainly for convenience of reference but do not correspond to section-breaks (parshiyos) in the hand-written Hebrew scrolls, where the entire Megillah consists of only three parshahs: (1) The "prologue" - Koheles ch 1 vv 1-11; (2) The lengthy section from ch 1 v 12 to ch 6 6 v 12; (3) The lengthy section from 7:1 to the end of the book.
The first verse of our present chapter is thus the direct continuation of the preceding passage, which ended in the last verse of the previous chapter (2:26) with the contrast between the chosen Tzaddikim to whom God grants true wisdom and joy in life as opposed to the sinner who tries to make gains by force, only to end up seeing them pass to the righteous.
The futility of trying to force matters in order to make gains in this world is underlined by Koheles' exploration - beginning in verse 1 of the present chapter - of how God has already foreordained the entire order of time in creation, so that if a person makes unlawful gains today, he will be brought to justice tomorrow, whereas if he had trustfully waited for the right time, he could have made legitimate gains.
"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (v 1) - "Let not he who gathers vain wealth rejoice, for if it is now in his hand, the time will come when the righteous will inherit it, except that the time has not yet come because everything has a fixed time when it will come about" (Rashi ad loc.).
Each of the seven verses from v 2 to v 8 contains two pairs of contrasting "times", making a total of twenty-eight different times. All of the various different changing times in the entire creation are subsumed under these twenty-eight paradigmatic "times", which span everything from birth to death (v 2) from total war to complete peace (v 8). God is perfect unity, but His creation is one of multiplicity, all of whose many facets are crafted to bring the whole, stage by stage, to perfect repair. Thus these twenty-eight times of creation are rooted in the twenty-eight Hebrew letters of the first verse of the Torah (Gen. 1:1), which are the root and power (KO-ACH, Kaph 20 & Ches 8 = 28) of all creation.
Many Midrashim explore the different connotations of the various "times" in our text, which relate not only to the life of the individual but to that of entire nations. Rashi's explanations are as follows: "There is a time to give birth." - after nine months; ".and a time to die" - after the appointed life-span of each generation. "A time to plant." - a nation and a kingdom; ".and a time to uproot" - the time will come for it to be uprooted. "There is a time to kill." - a complete nation on their day of retribution; ".and a time to heal" - to heal their destruction. "There is a time to weep." - on Tisha B'Av; ".and a time to laugh" - in time to come. "A time to lament." - when mourning the dead; ".and a time to dance" - in honor of brides and grooms. "A time to throw stones." - these are the youths of Israel , who were cast out at the time of the destruction of the Temple , as it says, "the holy stones have been poured out" (Lam. 4:1); ".and a time to gather in stones" - to gather them in from the exile. "A time to embrace." - as when God "attaches" Israel to Himself like a belt (Jer. 13:11); ".and a time to refrain from embracing" - as when God "banishes the man= Israel " (Is. 6:12). "A time to seek." - the outcasts of Israel ; ".and a time to lose" - those lost in exile. "A time to keep." - "HaShem will bless you and keep you" (Num. 6:24); ".and a time to cast out" - "And He cast them out to another land" (Deut. 29:27). "A time to tear apart." - the kingdom of David ; ".and a time to sew" - to join back the Ten Tribes with the House of David. "A time to be silent." - sometimes a man says nothing and gains a reward, as in the case of Aaron the High Priest (Lev. 10:3); ".and a time to speak" - "Then Moses sang" (Ex. 15:1), "and Deborah sang" (Judges 5:1). "A time to love." - "And I shall show you love" (Deut. 7:13); ".and a time to hate" - "for there I hated them" (Hosea 9:15).
Having surveyed all these different times, Solomon moves to the inference he wants to make about the futility of trying to make gains by force. "What profit does the worker have from his toil" (v 9). Rashi explains: "What profit does the worker of evil have from all his toil - his time will also come and everything will be lost!" (Rashi on v 9). "He has made everything beautiful in its time" (v 11) - "Everything that the Holy One blessed be He has created in His world is all beautiful, but only when one uses each thing in its own appointed time, not at any other time" (Metzudas David). Instead of trying to force matters NOW, one should trust that God will send what one needs at the right time!
".also He has put the world in their hearts without man being able to find out the work that God has made from beginning to end" (v 11). Rashi explains: "Although He has put the wisdom to understand the world in people's hearts, He did not put all of it into the heart of each and every person. Rather, one person has a small portion and someone else another, in order that man should never be able to fathom and understand God's entire work. This way he never knows when his time of judgment will come and how he will stumble. The purpose is that he should set himself to repent and live in a state of anxiety, saying, Today or tomorrow I will die" (Rashi ad loc.). In the light of Rashi's explanation, we see that Koheles is giving expression to man's basic existential predicament, which derives from his having only partial knowledge and understanding of the world around him and the consequences of his deeds. This indeed is what gives man his freedom, for if he had perfect knowledge of the evil his bad deeds cause to himself, he would never do them.
Thus Koheles comes to his conclusion: "I KNOW that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in his life" (v 12) - "There is nothing better for a person than to rejoice in his share and do good in the eyes of his Creator as long as he is still alive" (Rashi). This is further reinforcement of the point made earlier, "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink." (Koheles 2:24) - i.e. eat and drink Torah and good deeds - for these are the ways that God knows will bring him true gain, for God has perfect knowledge of all the different pathways and their consequences to all eternity.
"I KNOW that whatever God does, it shall be forever." (v 14). God has created all of the twenty-eight paradigmatic "times" and their offspring in order to bring the universe to ultimate perfection. If the times change, sometimes very dramatically (as in the case of Noah's flood, see Rashi), the only purpose is to bring men to know that there is a God and to fear Him. There is thus no point in men's trying to force matters in order to make unlawful gains through robbery, exploitation and the like, because it is a fundamental law of creation that "God seeks out the persecuted" (v 15) - "He exacts retribution from the persecutor, so what does the worker of evil gain from all his toil?" (Rashi ad loc.).
"And I have seen yet more under the sun." (v 16). Koheles now brings a further observation about this mysterious creation and its many paradoxes: "In the place of righteousness there is iniquity." (ibid.). With bold candor, Koheles confronts the fact that in our world here "under the sun", we witness again and again the most abominable wickedness perpetrated under the guise of Justice and Equity.
"But I SAID IN MY HEART." (v 17). Koheles knew that we must not let the outer appearance of this world reduce us to cynicism. He answered his own doubts about the justice of creation with his firm conviction that ".God shall judge the righteous and the wicked" (ibid.). The reason is because "there is a time for every purpose" - as explained at length earlier in the enumeration of the Twenty-Eight Times: God has all the time in the world to do perfect justice ".over all the work there". "Over all the work that a man did, there (i.e. in the judgment after death) they will judge him when the time of retribution comes" (Rashi ad loc.).
This leads Koheles to give expression to another article of conviction in verse 18 as the verse is explained by Rashi: "Having seen all this, namely that men have adopted the arrogant trait of ruling and lording it over those weaker than themselves, I know that the Holy One blessed be He will make them know that their power is nothing, and so too that of lords and kings, for they are simply like animals and wild beasts - out for themselves".
This brings Koheles to muse on the mysteries of the body and the soul and the differences between man and the animals. When a man dies, his cadaver may seem to be no different qualitatively from that of an animal - so where is his superiority and success? But "Who knows whether the spirit of the children of men goes upwards and the spirit of the animal goes downwards to the earth?" (v 21). "'Who knows' - i.e. he who knows and understands, knows that man's soul goes above after death to stand trial, while the soul of the animal goes down to the earth and she is not required to give a reckoning and accounting. The moral is that man must not conduct himself like an animal that does not care what she does" (Rashi on vv 20-21).
At last comes the moral of the whole discussion: "So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his portion." (v 22). Again this harks back to v 12 in the present chapter and ch 2 v 24: Man should rejoice in the labor of his own hands and eat - Torah and mitzvos - for this is the share given to him by Heaven and in this he should rejoice. What point is there in amassing ill-gotten gains if he will not see what his children will do with them when he dies? (see Rashi on our verse).
"So I returned and considered all the oppression under the sun." (v 1). "'I returned, i.e. I changed my mind and went back on what I had thought, that it is good for a man to rejoice, on account of the fact that he is unable to rejoice and be happy. This is because there is robbery in this world, and his property will be taken from him by force, or he will be exploited when some judge or officer takes a bribe or by a thief" (Ibn Ezra ad loc.).
With further daring candor, Koheles confronts the terrible cruelty of this world, where the oppressed shed tears again and again yet no-one comforts them. It is noteworthy that the phrase "they have no comforter" is repeated twice in the verse in order to give emphasis to their helpless misery.
While Ibn Ezra's above-cited explanation of the verse addresses the material exploitation and oppression of men by men in this world, Rashi illumines the esoteric dimension of the verse in his comment that the tears of the oppressed are those of the wicked in hell, who instead of the Torah embraced this world "under the sun", and who now weep over their souls which are oppressed by the cruel vengeful angels of destruction (see Rashi on v 1). Are we not all robbed in this world by the wicked Evil Inclination, which tempts and tricks us into doing wrong, leaving us bereft of goodness having to face terrible retribution? From the depths of the existential mire in which we find ourselves, is it any wonder that Koheles goes on to praise those who are already dead (v 2) and to say that it would be better not to be born at all (v 3)?
So what are we supposed to do in this world? Even people's good deeds are motivated by jealousy of others etc. "Again I saw all the labor and every skill in work, that it comes from a man's rivalry with his neighbor" (v 4).
Are we then to fold our arms and do nothing? "The FOOL folds his hands and eats his own flesh" (v 5) - "The fool is the wicked man, who makes no effort to labor honestly and robs to eat" (Rashi). We may not desist from our labors for good in this world, even if we have mixed motives. "Better is a handful with quietness than both hands full of labor and striving after wind" (v 6). "It is better to acquire a modicum of possessions through one's own toil, thereby giving pleasure to His Creator, than to acquire many possessions sinfully, causing vexation and anger before Him" (Rashi ad loc.).
"Then I returned and I saw a vanity under the sun" (v 7). Having established that we are to toil in the Torah and mitzvos, Koheles goes a step further in verses 7-12 with his observations about how partnership and teamwork are better than trying to go it alone. A person may have great ambitions, but if he will not join and couple - with a friend, a partner, a wife etc. - selfishly wanting all the gains for himself, this is vanity. God wants us to link up and join together in our work to repair the creation.
Then who will lead us? "Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king." (v 13). "The poor, wise child is the good inclination (YETZER TOV). And why is it called a child? Because it does not enter a man until the age of 13. It is wise because it gives the person the intelligence to follow the path of good. The old and foolish king is the evil inclination (YETZER RA), which rules over all the person's limbs. It is 'old', because from the moment the baby is born it is put in him, as it says, 'Sin crouches at the entrance' (Gen. 4:7). It is 'foolish' because it leads the person astray on the path of evil. It 'does not know to take care any more' because having become old in his ways, the person does not accept rebuke" (Rashi on v 13).
"And I saw all the living who wander under the sun - they were with the second child who was to rise up in his stead" (v 15). "All the living" are those who are righteous in their deeds. What caused them to be alive under the sun - their going after the second child, which is the good inclination" (Midrash Koheles Rabbah).
However: "There is no end of all the people who come to acclaim the one who goes before them and also those who come after shall not rejoice in him, for this too is vanity and vexation of the spirit" (v 16). This verse is speaking of the foolish and wicked people who follow the old and foolish king. "There is no end to all the generations that the Evil Inclination has destroyed, and also those who come after will not rejoice if they obey him" (Midrash Koheles Rabbah).
Koheles has taught us to follow the poor wise child, the Good Inclination and travel the path of the Torah and the mitzvos. Finally in verse 17 he teaches that we should be quick and eager to heed the Torah, doing good from the outset, rather than being lax and careless, ending up having to bring the sacrifices of fools - sin and guilt offerings. "Guard your legs when you go to the House of God." (v 17). Besides the plain meaning of this verse, it is also the foundation for the law that in preparation for prayer we must cleanse ourselves of our bodily wastes, which come from between the legs (Berachos 23a).
May God help us to follow His path and purify ourselves so as to come to His House and serve Him in truth! Amen.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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