Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
KOHELES CHAPTER 7
The letter Teth at the head of the Hebrew word TOV ("good", "better") with which Chapter 7 begins is traditionally written large (RABASI) in the parchment scroll, emphasizing how much better is a good name than even the best oil. Above all else is the Name of HaShem, to which the verse alludes on the level of SOD (esoteric wisdom). In the handwritten Hebrew scrolls this large letter marks the beginning of a new Parshah (section) of the Megillah, which runs continuously without any further breaks until the end of the book.
Compared to the earlier part of the work, this last section often seems to be less of a continuous discourse and more of a succession of proverbs, each of which is a precious jewel joining with those that precede and follow it to make a Torah mosaic providing the deepest insights into the meaning and purpose of life in this world with its many paradoxes and mysteries, in order to clarify how man should best spend his days of vanity here.
The present commentary, which is largely based on Targum and Rashi, seeks to throw light on the PSHAT (plain meaning) and REMEZ (allusions) contained in these verses while touching only in passing upon some the many levels of DRASH (rabbinic interpretation) and SOD (esoteric wisdom) they contain.
Verse 1: "A good name is better than precious ointment." - "Better is the good name that the righteous acquire in this world than the anointing oil that was poured on the heads of kings and priests. And better is the day on which a man is released and lies in his grave with a good name and with merit than the day on which a wicked man is born into the world" (Targum).
Verse 2: "It is better to go to the house of mourning." - "It is better to go to the house of a man who is in mourning in order to comfort him than to go to the house of drinking and lasciviousness, because everyone must eventually go to the house of mourning, because the decree of death applies to everyone, and by going to the house of mourning the righteous man will take to heart the fact of death and let go of any evil in his hands and return to God" (Targum).
Verse 3: "Anger is better than laughter." - "Better is the anger which the Master of the World displays to the righteous in this world than the smile He shows to the wicked, because the frown on the face of the Shechinah brings dearth and retribution into the world in order to rectify the hearts of the righteous so that they should pray to the Master of the World to have mercy on them" (Targum).
Verse 4: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning." - "The heart of the wise dwells on the destruction of the Holy Temple and is pained over the exile of Israel, whereas the heart of fools is filled with the joy of their house of follies: they eat and drink and indulge themselves, paying no attention to the suffering of their brothers" (Targum).
Verse 5: "It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise." - "It is better to sit in the study hall and listen to the rebuke of a Torah sage than to go to hear the jingles of fools" (Targum).
Verse 7: "For the oppressor mocks the wise man." - "For the oppressor mocks at the wise man because he does not go in his way, and with his evil words he can destroy the wisdom in the heart of the sage that was given to him as a gift from heaven" (Targum). "When the fool taunts the sage, he can throw him into confusion and cause him to stumble, as in the case of Dathan and Aviram, who taunted Moses (Ex. 5:21) until he spoke against the Holy One (ibid. 6:1) with the result that he did not enter the Promised Land (see Rashi on our verse).
Verse 8: "Better is the end of a matter." - "Better is the end of a matter than its beginning. For at the beginning a person does not know what will be at the end, but at the end of something good, a person knows that it is good. And better in God's eyes is the man who is in control of his spirit and subdues his evil inclination than the one who goes in the arrogance of his spirit" (Targum).
Verse 9: "Do not be hasty in your spirit to be angry." - "If rebuke is sent to you from heaven, do not be quick to let your soul rage and speak rebellious words against heaven. For if you are patient your sins will be forgiven, but if you rebel and rage, know that anger dwells in the lap of fools until it destroys them" (Targum).
Verse 10: "Do not say, How was it that the former days were better." - "In your time of trouble do not say that the reason why there used to be good in the world was because the earlier days were better. For the reason is because the deeds of the people of that generation were more beautiful than now and this was why they were sent good. Not with wisdom do you ask about this" (Targum).
Verse 11: "Wisdom is good with an inheritance." - "Even if someone has a house, wealth and an ancestral inheritance, wisdom is still of benefit, because without it his inheritance will not endure in his hands" (Metzudas David).
Verse 12: For whoever is in the shade of wisdom is in the shade of wealth." - "For when a person takes refuge in the shade of wisdom, likewise he can take refuge in the shade of wealth as long as he performs charity with it. But the excellence of knowledge of the wisdom of the Torah is that it brings its owner from the cemetery to the life of the world to come" (Targum).
Verse 13: "Consider the work of God." - "Consider the work of God and His might. For He has made the blind, the hunchback and the lame prevalent in the world, but who is wise enough to rectify a single one of them except for the Master of the World, who caused them to be flawed?" (Targum).
Verse 14: "On the day of goodness, be good." - "On the day that God does goodness to you, you too be good and do goodness to the entire world, in order that no evil day should befall you ."
".God has made the one corresponding to the other" (verse 14). On the level of SOD (esoteric wisdom) this verse is frequently cited in the literature of Kabbalah and Chassidus as an allusion to God's creation of the SITRA ACHRA ("the Other Side", source of the bad days, bad times) as the counter-image of the Side of Holiness (source of the good days, good times) in order to give man the freedom of choice between good and evil in this world, so as to test him and enable him to earn his reward in the world to come.
Verse 15: "I have seen everything in the days of my vanity: there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness." - "Good and evil are sent into the world through God's decree on account of the destinies with which people are created. For there is a righteous person who perishes in his righteousness in this world while his merit is guarded for him in the world to come, and there is a guilty person who lives a long life despite his sins, but the account of his evil awaits him in the world to come in order to exact retribution from him on the great Day of Judgment" (Targum).
Verse 16: "Do not be over righteous." - "Do not be over righteous at the time when a sinner is condemned to death in your law court so that you take pity on him so as not to kill him. And do not be excessively wise so that you follow the wisdom of the wicked in your generation: do not learn from their ways, for why should you ruin your ways?" (Targum).
Verse 17: "Do not do much wickedness." - "Do not go after sinful thoughts in your heart so as to be exceedingly sinful and do not keep your path far from the study house of God's Torah so as to be a fool - for why should you cause death to your soul and cause the years of your life to be cut short so that you die before your time?" (Targum).
Verse 18: "It is good that you should take hold of this but do not withdraw your hand from that." - "It is good for you to rejoice in the affairs of this world and benefit yourself as traders do, but also do not abandon your share in this book of the Torah."
".for he that fears God fulfills his duty according to them all" (v 18). This rendering of the closing words of the verse is intended to bring out the halachic prescription which it contains. Many different and often apparently conflicting halachic opinions and approaches are found in the Talmud and among the various Poskim (legal authorities). Where possible, a God-fearing Jew strives to take account of as many of the different opinions as possible in the way he performs the various commandments, and it is this principle that guides the rulings of the Torah Codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, Mishneh Berurah etc.).
Verse 19: "Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten rulers who are in the city." "The 'ten rulers' are the ten things that make a person guilty: his two eyes, which show him sinful things, his two ears, which make him listen to idle matters, his two hands, with which he robs and oppresses, his two legs, which transport him to the sin, and his mouth and heart" (Rashi ad loc.). "Wisdom means repentance and good deeds" (Nedarim 32b).
Verse 20: "There is not a just man on earth." - ".but if a man has sinned, he should make sure he repents before he dies" (Targum).
Verses 21-22: "Another benefit of wisdom is that it will teach you not to pay attention if people speak to you insultingly and disparagingly. Do not listen and pay attention even if it is your servant who insults you and you have it in your power to take vengeance on him. For you know in your heart that you have many times cursed others." (Metzudas David).
Verses 23-24: "All this I tried with wisdom" - that is the Torah. ".I said, I will be wise, but it was far from me." And what is this that was far? "Far is what was" - i.e. the far off things that took place at the very formation of the creation. This is ".deep, deep - who can find it out?" One is not permitted to speculate about them and ask what is above and what is below, what is inside and what is behind (Rashi).
Verse 25: "I cast about in my mind to know and to search." - ".To find out the calculation of the reward of the deeds of the righteous and to know the retribution for the sins of the fools and the intelligence and trickery of the government (MALCHUS)" (Targum).
Verse 26: "And I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and her hands are fetters." - "This 'woman' refers to heresy" (Rashi). This "woman" is thus none other than the "strange woman" against whom Solomon warns repeatedly in the book of Proverbs (2:16ff, 5:3ff etc.).
Verse 27: "Behold this I have found, SAYS Koheles." It is noteworthy that in this verse, the Hebrew word for "says", AMRAH, is in the feminine form, which agrees with the grammatical form of KOHELES, which is also technically feminine, even though in other appearances of the name Koheles in the Megillah the accompanying verbs are in the masculine form (1:2; 12:8, 9 and 10). Rashi here renders: "Says the assembly (KEVUTZAH, fem.) of wisdom, and says his intelligent soul (NEFESH, fem.), which gathers wisdom".
".counting one thing to another to find the sum" (v 27) - "I drew a line joining one constellation with another to find the sum of the sons of man - what will be at the end" (Targum).
Verse 28: "One man among a thousand I have found, but a woman among all those I have not found" - "I have not found anyone whole and righteous without flaws from the day the first man was born until the righteous Abraham, who was found faithful and worthy among the thousand kings that gathered to make the Tower of Babel. And I did not find a single worthy woman among all the wives of those kings" (Targum). "It usually happens in this world that a thousand enter into the study of the Bible but out of them only a hundred emerge fit for the Mishneh, and out of those hundred who entered into the Mishneh only ten go forth to the Talmud, and of those ten who enter into the Talmud, only one is fit to give legal rulings - i.e. one in a thousand" (Rashi).
Verse 29: "God has made man upright, but they sought out many calculations" - "HaShem made the first man worthy and righteous but the serpent and Eve deceived him into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and brought down death upon him and all the generations of the earth, and they sought out many calculations in order to bring disaster upon the generations of the earth" (Targum).
Verse 1: "Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a thing?" - "Thus we find that through Daniel's wisdom in the fear of heaven, the secrets of the interpretation of dreams were revealed to him" (Rashi).
In verse 2 Koheles counsels that the greatest wisdom is to observe the word of God's mouth - the Torah - which Israel are sworn to keep.
Verse 3: "Be not hasty to go out of His presence." - "In the time of God's anger, do not leave off praying before Him. Beg Him for mercy so that you do not get involved in something evil, for HaShem is the Master of the World: He does everything that He desires" (Targum).
Verse 5: "He who keeps a commandment shall know nothing evil" - "Whoever fulfills a mitzvah in the proper way will not be the recipient of bad news" (Shabbos 63a).
Verse 6: "For every matter (CHEFETZ) has its time and judgment (MISHPAT)." - "When a person follows his own desire (CHEFETZ) and violates the law of Torah, there is a time to exact retribution, and justice and punishment stand ready" (Rashi).
Verses 7-8: Man does not know when the time of retribution will come: no-one warns him, and it is impossible to keep one's soul in one's body because one has no control on the day of death.
Verse 9: ".There is a time when one man rules over another man, to his own hurt." This verse alludes to the mystery of how the SITRA ACHRA (the "other", impure side of creation) may hold the righteous in subjection for a certain period, but the ultimate purpose is to bring about the overthrow of the wicked (as in the case of Amalek, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib, all of whom held Israel in subjection but were eventually destroyed, see Rashi).
Verse 10: "And in truth I saw how the sinners were buried and they were destroyed from the world and removed from the holy place where the righteous dwell, and they went to be burned in Gehinnom on account of their evil sins of robbery, oppression and theft, and they were forgotten from among the dwellers of the city, and just as they did to others, so they had done to them" (Targum).
Verse 11: It is because God is patient and slow to exact retribution that people imagine they can escape the consequences of doing evil.
Verse 14: "There is a vanity that is decreed on the face of the earth: this is that there are cases of Tzaddikim who suffer evil as if they had acted like sinners, and there are sinners who receive a flow of good as if they had acted like Tzaddikim, and I saw with holy spirit that the evil that befalls the righteous in this world is not because of serious sins but in order for them to pay the penalty for any light sins they may have committed in order for their reward to be complete in the world to come. But the good that comes to the sinners in this world is not because of their merits but in order to pay them the reward for any minor merits they may have so that they may eat their reward in this world in order to destroy their share in the world to come" (Targum).
Verse 15: "And I praised SIMCHAH!!!" The Talmudic reconciliation of the apparent contradiction between our present verse and Koheles' earlier question, "What does SIMCHAH accomplish???" has already been discussed in KNOW YOUR BIBLE commentary on Koheles 1:17. Whereas there he was referring to fools' happiness, our present verse speaks about the holy SIMCHAH of keeping the Torah. This verse is seen as the BINYAN AV (paradigm case) proving that wherever Koheles speaks about "eating" and "drinking", he is talking about taking joy in the study of Torah, observance of the mitzvos and the performance of good deeds, for this alone is what accompanies man to the grave after all his toil in this world (Koheles Rabbah).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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