Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
KOHELES CHAPTER 9
In the closing verse of the previous chapter Koheles declared that "a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun" (Koheles 8:17) - "The creatures are unable to fathom the ways of the Holy One blessed be He and understand what is the reward for men's actions under the sun, because they see the wicked succeed while the righteous keep sinking lower" (Rashi).
Yet even though His ways may be incomprehensible, in the opening verse of our present chapter Koheles affirms that "the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God". That is to say, there is a special divine providence which governs all those who endeavor to go in God's ways. "He helps them and He judges them in order to benefit them in the end" (Rashi). God does not love or hate one person more than any other even when He helps one more than another in his endeavors to serve Him. Rather, ".all is before them" - i.e. everyone has free will. If there is a difference in the degree of divine assistance apparently given to different people, this is in proportion to the goodness of each person's intentions in his efforts to serve Him (Sforno on v 1).
Notwithstanding the special providence that God extends to those who serve Him, we must confront the fact that "there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked, to the good and pure and to the impure." (verse 2). This is death, which makes no discrimination whatever between one person and another. How to come to terms with this key factor in our existential predicament in this world is the theme of the passage in verses 2-12.
What can be so confusing to us is precisely the fact that even the best of people apparently come to the same bad end as the worst. Thus the midrashic interpretation of verse 2 cites the parallel fates of the righteous Noah and the wicked Pharaoh Necho, both of whom limped; of the good Moses and the pure Aaron on the one hand and the impure Ten Spies on the other, none of whom were permitted to enter the Promised Land; of King Josiah, who sacrificed to God and King Ahab, who did not sacrifice, both of whom were killed by arrows; and of Tzedekiah, who swore and broke his oath, and Samson, who took oaths very seriously (Judges 15:12), both of whom had their eyes gouged out.
As a result, "the heart of the sons of man is full of evil" (verse 3) - "Because they say that there is no retribution against the wicked, but everything is pure chance" (Rashi ad loc.).
But "for him that is joined to all the living there is hope" (verse 4) - "Whoever attaches himself to all the teachings of the Torah so as to acquire the life of the world to come has hope" (Targum). "For as long as he is alive, even if he has been wicked and attached to other wicked people, he can still repent before his death".
"For a living dog is better than a dead lion" (verse 4) - "Nevuzeradan (Nebuchadnezzar's captain, who executed the destruction of the Temple) was a wicked servant but he converted before he died and was thus better off than Nebuchadnezzar his master, who was called a lion (Jer. 4:7), and who died in his wickedness and lies in hell while his servant sits in the Garden of Eden" (Rashi). "When King David died, it was Shabbos, and Solomon sent a message to the sages in the study hall asking what to do because his father's body was lying in the sun and the household dogs were hungry. They replied that the maximum that would be permissible would be to cut up carrion meat to throw to the dogs (to divert them from the body), and the only way the corpse (which was MUKTZEH, not to be touched on Shabbos) could be moved would be if this were done indirectly, as by carrying it together with a loaf of bread or a baby. This was a case where a living dog was better off than the dead 'lion' - David" (Shabbos 30b).
Verse 5 teaches the fundamental article of Torah faith that as long as a person is alive in this world of ASIYAH, action, he can repent, serve God and acquire merits, but after death "they do not have a reward any more" - "There is no possibility for them to fulfill any further commandments in order to receive a reward for their performance" (Metzudas David).
Verse 6: "Also all their love and their hatred and their envy are now long perished." - "After the death of the wicked, there is no further need for them. Their love, hate and envy are already perished from the world, and they have no good share with the righteous in the world to come, nor do they have any benefit from all that is done in this world beneath the sun" (Targum).
On the other hand, verse 7 addresses those who follow the path of righteousness: "Go, eat your bread in joy." (v 7) - "You, the tzaddik, whose good deeds God has already accepted and who will merit the World to Come: go eat your bread in joy" (Rashi). "Solomon said with a prophetic spirit from God: The Master of the World is destined to say to all the Tzaddikim - to each and every one by himself - Go and joyously taste the bread that has been prepared for you in return for the good bread that you gave to the poor and needy when they were hungry, and with a good heart drink the wine that has been hidden away for you in the Garden of Eden in return for the wine that you poured out for the poor and needy when they were thirsty." (Targum).
Thus after death, the destiny of the souls of the righteous is quite different from that of those of the wicked, and it therefore behooves the righteous to do everything in their power to acquire merits as long as they are alive in this world. Therefore - "Let your garments always be white" (verse 8): "Rabbi Yochanan ben Zaccai said: If the verse is talking literally about white garments and good oils, we see how many white garments and good oils the idolaters have! Rather, the verse is talking only about mitzvos and good deeds. Let your garments always be clean of sins, and never let the oil of mitzvos and good deeds be lacking from upon your head" (Shabbos 153a).
"See life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vanity." (verse 9). Our sages interpreted this prescription to "see LIFE" with your wife as a counsel to pursue a worthy occupation in order to make a livelihood, learning from our verse that just as a father has an obligation to help his son to marry, so he must teach him a trade (Kiddushin 30b). "See and understand that you must learn a craft in order to make a living together with your study of the Torah. And if you do so, your share will be life in this world through the livelihood you gain from your craft, and life in the world to come. For toil in both of them - Torah and making a living - causes sin to be forgotten" (Rashi on verse 9).
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your strength." (verse 10). In this verse, Koheles drives home the message that "there is no action or reckoning. in She'ol where you are going". After death, it is impossible to take any further ACTION in order to acquire merits to be added to the RECKONING. For the only place of action is this world of ASIYAH. Accordingly, as long as we are alive here, we must apply ourselves with all our strength to the acquisition of merit through mitzvos and good deeds. This is because neither the swift nor the mighty nor the wise nor those of understanding can escape death, which spells the absolute end of the period assigned for action and endeavor (verse 11). Man never knows when his time will come: we are helplessly trapped in this world - like fish in a net or birds in a trap (v 12).
Since the key to our taking advantage of our life in this world to acquire merits lies in CHOCHMAH, Koheles now turns to acclaim the virtues of CHOCHMAH in the closing verses of our present chapter (ch 9 vv 13-18) and opening verses of the next (ch 10 vv 1-4). "Having said above that the wise do not necessarily have bread (v 11), he now goes back to praising wisdom, for even though it may not help to bring in bread, one should not reject it because there is a certain wisdom that is of great importance in this world" (Metzudas David). The "wisdom" to which Koheles refers is not a matter of intellectual brilliance but rather the practical Torah wisdom that enables us to escape the traps of the evil inclination.
"There was a little city and few men within it." (v 14). The allegory of the "little city" is explained in the Talmud: "The 'little city' is man's body. The 'few men' in it are the limbs of the body. The 'great king' who comes against it is the evil inclination, while the 'poor wise man' found there is the good inclination, which saved the city through wisdom, i.e. repentance and good deeds. But 'nobody remembered that poor man', because at the hour when the evil inclination holds sway, nobody remembers the good inclination" (Nedarim 32b). The allegory of the "little city" in this passage harks back to the allegory of the "poor wise boy" who came to rule the country in Koheles 4:13-15.
"Wisdom is better than instruments of war, but one sinner can destroy much good" (v 18) - "A person should always look at himself as if he is half guilty and half worthy, and therefore if he performs a single mitzvah, happy is he because he swings himself into the scale of merit, but if he carries out one sin, woe is he because he swings himself into the scale of guilt. On account of a single sin that a person commits, he may loose many benefits" (Kiddushin 40b).
The opening verses of chapter 10 continue with the praises of wisdom and the disparagement of folly. The same destructive power of folly that was the subject of the last verse of the previous chapter is the theme of verse 1 of our present chapter. "Dead flies cause the perfumer's oil to give off a foul odor" (v 1): "For example in wintertime when flies have no strength and are near death, even if a single one falls into perfumer's oil and gets mixed up in the spices, it makes it give off a foul odor causing a scum with little bubbles to rise to the surface. In the same way a little folly can have more weight than wisdom and honor because it can swing everything into the scale of guilt" (Rashi).
Verse 2: "A wise man's hand inclines to his right hand (CHESSED, expansive kindness, revelation) but a fool's heart is to his left (GEVURAH, strength, constraint, restriction and concealment)". "The heart of the wise is directed to the acquisition of the Torah, which was given from God's right arm, while the heart of fools is bent on the acquisition of wealth, silver and gold" (Targum).
Verse 3: "Even in the way the fool walks his heart is lacking and he tells everyone he is a fool". "The fool thinks that everyone else is stupid, but he does not realize that he is the one who is stupid while others are wise" (Koheles Rabbah). For examples of how fools walk, see M. Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks".
Verse 4: "If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place". "If the spirit of the evil inclination rules in you and attacks you, do not abandon your good place - the good practices you have been following - for the Torah was created as a healing remedy in the world in order to cause many sins to be forgiven and forgotten by God" (Targum).
In verses 5ff Koheles continues his moral discourse on the path of life which the righteous should follow with a bold and candid examination of one of the greatest challenges that this world of mysterious paradoxes presents to our faith in God's justice. "There is an evil that I have seen under the sun - it is LIKE A MISTAKE that went forth from before the Ruler: folly is set in great dignity while the (spiritually) rich sit in a low place" (vv 5-6). Many sincere people are indeed deeply perplexed by the seeming injustice whereby the most unworthy people enjoy glory and splendor while the truly worthy seem to be despised and rejected. It seems all wrong - like some kind of ERROR perpetrated by the Ruler of the world!!! How could this be???
Targum's rendering of verses 6-7 is: "God has given the wicked, insane Edom mighty good fortune and heaven-sent success and his forces are haughty and multitudinous, while the House of Israel are subject to him in exile, and because of their many sins those who were wealthy have become poor and sit in lowliness among the nations. King Solomon said through the spirit of prophecy: I have seen nations that were formerly subject to the House of Israel holding sway and riding horses like governors, while the nation of the House of Israel, their masters, walk like servants on the ground".
While the warning in verse 8 that "he who digs a pit will fall into it" applies to the machinations of any wicked person, Targum's rendering follows on from his application of the previous verses to Israel: "The Attribute of Judgment spoke up and answered: They themselves brought all this upon themselves, for just as when a man digs a pit at the crossroads he is brought there to fall into it, so the nation that transgressed God's decree and attacked the fence of the world will fall into the hand of a wicked king who will bite them like a serpent" (Targum on v 8).
Verse 10: "If the iron is blunt and one does not whet the edge, then one must put in more strength." - "When the people of Israel sin and cause the heavens to become hard as iron so that no rain falls, if that generation does not pray before God the whole world is ruined by famine. But when they repent and gather together and overcome their evil inclination, appointing prayer leaders to beg for mercy before God in heaven, they find favor." (Targum).
Verse 11: "If the serpent bites and cannot be charmed, then there is no advantage in the master of the tongue" - "When fiery serpents are let loose to frighten and harm the world, it is because of the sins of Israel in not engaging in words of Torah uttered in a whisper. Likewise there is no benefit to a person who speaks LASHON HARA (evil speech) because he is destined to burn in the fire of hell" (Targum).
Following further disparagement of those who follow the path of folly in verses 12-15, Koheles continues in verses 16-17 by contrasting the fortune of the land (=Eretz Israel) when under the rule of a king and judges who behave like young lads with its fortune under the rule of those whose might is combined with wisdom and understanding (see Rashi ad loc.). We badly need the latter today.
Verse 18: "By much slothfulness the beams collapse." - "When a person fails to fix a small crack in the roof of the house the entire structure will collapse" (Rashi). Don't leave little flaws to become bigger.
Verse 19: "For laughter they make bread, and wine will bring joy to the living, and money answers over everything" - "For laughter the righteous make bread to feed the hungry poor, and the wine that they pour for the thirsty will be for them for joy in the world to come, and their redemption money will testify to their merit in the world to come in the eyes of all" (Targum).
Verse 20: "Do not curse the king even in your thought." - "Do not anger the King of the world" (Rashi). Do not think that your words and thoughts are not heard and registered! "At the hour when a man sleeps, the body tells the lower soul and the lower soul tells the higher soul, and the higher soul tells the angel and the angel tells the cherub and the cherub tells the master of wings - that is the Saraph - and the Saraph takes the word and tells it before the One Who spoke and brought the world into being" (Koheles Rabbah).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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