Kohelet: Torah for the 21st Century

The Book of Ecclesiastes may be the section of the Hebrew Bible most relevant to the way we experience the world today.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, written in the centuries before the Common Era by an anonymous sage called Kohelet (“Assembler of Wisdom” is one translation), is the most honest of the Hebrew Bible’s 27 books and, as such, may well be the ideal Torah for our time.

Traditionally read during the fall festival of Sukkot, Kohelet is the most honest book of the Bible because it speaks to those Jews (and others) who have outgrown the idea of a supernatural God who writes books, chooses one people from among all others, and dabbles in real estate. It may be the Torah for our time because it offers a way to live well in the wild world we experience every day.

Read the entire text of Ecclesiastes in English and Hebrew on Sefaria.

Kohelet refers to God as HaElohim, literally “The God.” His understanding of God leaves no room for a self-conscious and willful supernatural being who creates and governs the world. Kohelet is more of a naturalist who sees God in, with, and as the universe.

Kohelet’s world isn’t a fantasy realm where God rewards and punishes according to some divine standard, but rather our world where bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, and that’s just the way it is because things happen.

At the heart of Kohelet’s teaching is the notion of havel, a Hebrew word most English translators render as futility, vanity or meaninglessness. Read this way, Kohelet appears to be a nihilist. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Havel also means dew, vapor or breath. When Kohelet says havel havalim, hakol havel (“Utter futility! All is futile”), he is saying that life is impermanent, without a fixed nature, as temporary as morning dew. Life is, as someone once said, just one thing after another.

This is how Kohelet puts it:

Everything in this world has its moment,
a season of ripening and falling away:
Moments of birthing and moments of dying;
moments of planting and moments of reaping.
Moments of killing and moments of healing;
moments of demolition and moments of building.
Moments of weeping and moments of laughing;
moments of mourning and moments of dancing.
Moments of scattering stones and moments of gathering stones;
moments of embracing and moments of distance.
Moments of seeking and moments of losing;
moments of clinging and moments of releasing.
Moments of tearing and moments of mending;
moments of silence and moments of talking.
Moments of loving and moments of hating;
moments of warring and moments of peacemaking.
(Translation from Ecclesiastes Annotated & Explained, by Rami Shapiro)

That life is a series of moments, each one flowing into the next, doesn’t mean life is meaningless, only that life is fluid. Reality is like the tide flowing in and flowing out. The flowing tide isn’t without purpose, but its purpose isn’t other than its flowing.

Kohelet’s world is purposeful in the same way: The purpose is in the happenings themselves and not some abstraction foisted upon them. To put it another way, there is no meaning to life, life itself is meaningful.

Living well in Kohelet’s world requires knowing what moment you are in. Is this a time for laughter or tears? Love or hate? Kohelet isn’t elevating one moment over another. He isn’t saying laughter is better than tears, or love is superior to hate. He is simply noting that laughter happens and tears happen and love happens and hate happens.

The key is to relax into what is happening rather than seek to change what is into something else by appeals to God or acts of will. You cannot change what is. You can only relax into it, knowing that it will, of its own accord, soon change into something else.

This is like being caught in a rip tide. According to oceanographer and rip tide expert Jamie MacMahan, most rip tides flow in circles from the shallows to the breakers and back again. It’s impossible to know which part of the circle you are in. If you swim against the tide, you’ll be exhausted and drown. If you swim parallel to the beach, which is the standard advice, you still have a 50/50 chance of swimming against the tide and drowning. The best way to survive is to relax and allow the tide to release you as it flows back in. It seems counterintuitive, but the science bears this out.

What MacMahan says about rip tides, Kohelet says about life. Relax into what is and it will carry you into what is next. This too seems counterintuitive. We are taught, as Dylan Thomas put it, not to go gently into that good night, to rage and struggle and pray and bend reality to our will. You can do this if you wish, and you will lose — but only, as Byron Katie puts it, 100 percent of the time.

So how do we live well in a fluid world, a world without certainty, surety, and security? Kohelet’s instruction is simple, practical and, to me, compelling. Eat simply, drink wisely, find work that gives you joy, and cultivate a few loving friendships (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 4:8–12). For some, this is too private, too much about “me” and not enough about “us.” But this is too narrow a reading. What is good for the individual is good for society at large, and Kohelet is calling us to create a world where everyone has access to healthy food, clean water, joyous work, and the freedom to love whomever they love.

This is why Kohelet is the Torah for our time. It provides an honest assessment of life and how best to live it without recourse to jealous and violent gods, corruptible clergy and kings, jingoistic tribalism, and xenophobic ethnicity. And because it does, it scared the crap out of those who put the Bible together.

Claiming that Kohelet was promoting fake news, they added alternative facts to the end of the book in the hopes of perverting the message of Kohelet and prevent it from being enacted by the people:

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done:
Revere God and observe His commandments!
For this applies to all mankind:
that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown,
be it good or bad. Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14

This desperate attempt by the powers that be to deny the wisdom of Kohelet only attests to its truth. Read the book for yourself and see if this is not so.

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