I used to call my son Kohelet when he was very small, because he would sometimes ask — in the way young children do — point blank and out of the blue: What’s the point of life? He’d ask in the same easy way you’d ask “how do I win this video game?” and would expect just as straightforward an answer.
As we age, the way we raise these questions might change, but the questions themselves remain. Like my four year old, Kohelet is steeped in a worldview oriented toward rules, progress and reward. Kohelet’s framework comes from the wisdom tradition embodied by the book of Proverbs, rather than video games, but the philosophical lay of the land is surprisingly similar: Follow these rules, and you will advance in the game of life.
Except Kohelet doesn’t see this actually playing out in the world, and it’s driving him mad. Good people suffer, hard workers are not adequately rewarded, the wicked prosper. This book is like a ruminating fugue, playing and re-playing these ingrained tropes of traditional wisdom against the backdrop of the real world. If hard work doesn’t always pay off, if good may not be rewarded, and if you probably cannot change the world, what is the point of our days on earth? It’s an uncomfortable question, to say the least, and Kohelet won’t let us look away.
The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that when we face an anxiety-provoking or unwanted situation, we should move through three steps: yield, discern, sweeten. First, you must accept what is true; you must yield to it. Only then can you understand and begin to mitigate the pain. In Kohelet, we see this applied to the most anxiety-provoking situation of all: awareness that we are mortal and fear that our lives have no meaning.
First, yield: Progress and profit are illusory
Like the Baal Shem Tov, for Kohelet, the first step is to yield — to tear down the idea that we can “invest” our time and energy in order to bring about a future “payout” of joy or comfort, progress or legacy. This is necessary for us to discern what is actually in our power to do, and find ways to sweeten our lot. Kohelet is your frank-talking, reality-checking companion, constantly telling you to put aside those lofty goals and figure out how to best love what’s in front of you.
Kohelet first takes on the idea that a human life is best viewed through the lens of our legacy by pointing out just how small we are. On the scale of the natural world, we simply cannot have any real impact.
What real value is there for a person
In all the gains they make beneath the sun?
One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains the same forever.Ecclesiastes 1:3–4
The word translated as “real value” here is yitron, a Persian loan word that comes from the world of accounting. It refers to the proverbial “bottom line,” the profit left behind after all the gains and losses are tallied up. Here, he sees that an individual can “make gains” in their life, but the scale of our gains is so miniscule that not only individuals but entire generations of people come and go with their “gains,” and none of it makes any difference. If our goal is impact, our efforts are indeed futile.
Meanwhile, the cycles of the natural world carry on, indifferent to our presence. Kohelet paints a picture of a busy natural world, where each player — the sun, the wind, the streams — is playing its role perfectly.
The sun rises, and the sun sets —
And glides back to where it rises.
Ever turning blows the wind;
On its rounds the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is never full;
To the place [from] which they flow
The streams flow back again.Ecclesiastes 1:5–7
But if one were to look at the work of the natural world using the accounting metaphor of yitron, it doesn’t look good either. The sun rising might go in as a net gain, but then the sun setting would go in as its opposite, and at the end of the day, your “net profit” is zero. You have ended where you began. Now, to be sure, this doesn’t mean that nothing worthwhile is happening. Life on earth could not be sustained without the cycles of the sun, the wind, the water. But if a person derives their energy and motivation from a sense of accomplishment and forward movement, they will begin to feel exhausted and depressed. And indeed, Kohelet does.
All such things are wearisome:
No man can ever state them;
The eye never has enough of seeing,
Nor the ear enough of hearing.Ecclesiastes 1:8
Kohelet goes on to trace this phenomenon as it plays out on the scale of a human life, too, in what is probably the most famous section of this book, courtesy of The Byrds hit song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” taken from chapter 3. If everything that is born dies, and everything planted is harvested, the sum total looks like zero. What real value is there, asks Kohelet? Look at your bottom line. Through the lens of yitron, every awesome and fearsome and grand thing in that poem, in a human life, suddenly disappears.
Discern, then sweeten: Not profit, but portion
It is hard for Kohelet to completely give up the notion of progress and impact, and he circles back many times to argue this strawman, as one often does when trying to reorient away from ideas that have been so dominant in the culture of our upbringing. But interspersed in his ruminations, he does see an alternative: instead of profit, portion — helek.
Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun — all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life (your helek in life) and out of the means you acquire under the sun.Ecclesiastes 9:8–9
The mood of these verses has shifted so abruptly that at first it’s hard to know what’s going on in Kohelet’s mind. Is this a passivity born of fatalism — nothing matters anyway, so why bother trying? The next verse helps to clarify: “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might.” (9:10a)
Kohelet is not calling for passivity, but rather what the Baal Shem Tov might have called discern and sweeten, the steps that are only possible once you yield. Only once you accept the limited realm of your power is it possible to make the most of it. And, indeed, the realm of our power is quite limited — but it is real. My favorite Kohelet conversation partner, Bobby Williamson, compares a helek to a coupon or a gift card: it has value, but you can’t trade it in for something it is not. (As the fine print says, there is no cash value.) And according to Kohelet, your helek — your portion — is right here in front of you, today. You have been granted this day, and the people you will encounter in it, and its questions and puzzles and (of course) its food and creature comforts. You can enjoy it or not, you can engage with it or not, you can love it or not, but you can’t trade it in for something better in the future. So, he advises, honor the portion you have.
But knowing the powerful grip of the yitron mindset, and still haunted by it himself, Kohelet continues, leaving us the most powerful of antidotes: not only thoughts of love, but also thoughts of death. The second half of verse 10 continues: “For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol (the underworld), where you are going.”
Reflecting on this last scene with Kohelet drinking wine and “enjoying happiness” with the woman he loves, one might reasonably ask: What kind of party is this? How does Kohelet expect us to enjoy our lot when we are thinking about dying? If you have not yet yielded to that particular truth, you might get stuck there, and indeed some readers of Kohelet do. But Kohelet needs the power in this ultimate reality to shatter the false promise of yitron. Indeed, we are dying, all of us, and we don’t know when. That knowledge, when one can bear to truly let it in, is the most powerful tool we have to flip from yitron to helek, from deferring our good days to living deeply in this one.
Ask yourself, in the words of famed author and physician Atul Gawande: For you, at the end of it all, what makes a good day? Kohelet urges: You must do that thing today, this most fleeting day. This is the portion granted to you.