Kohelet as Intertext
Elana Stein Hain
Kohelet is not only multivocal and internally contradictory; it also stands in tense dialogue with High Holiday liturgy. The intertextual conversation between Kohelet and this canon offers much in the way of understanding faith and the human experience.
Central to the amidah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the third berakhah, beginning with the anomalous term, ובכן, “and so.” In this berakhah, the petitioner makes four related requests of God:
1. That God induce all people fear God and to understand that God is Sovereign:
ובכן תן פחדך ה' אלוקינו על כל מעשיך ... וייראוך כל המעשים ... כמו שידענו ה' אלוקינו שהשלטן לפניך
And so, place the fear of You, Lord our God, over all that You have made… and all who were made will stand in awe of You… for we know, Lord our God, that all dominion is laid out before You
2. That the nation of Israel and all who have hoped for God receive the redemption they have been waiting for:
ובכן תן כבוד ה' לעמך תהילה ליראיך ... ופתחון פה למיחלים לך ... וצמיחת קרן לדוד עבדך
And so, place honor, Lord, upon Your people, praise on those who fear You…the confidence to speak into all who long for You … the flourishing of pride to David Your servant.
3. That the righteous will be happy with the state of affairs, while the wicked will finally be quieted and lose their power:
ובכן צדיקים יראו וישמחו ... ועולתה תקפץ פיה ... כי תעביר ממשלת זדון מן הארץ
And so, righteous people will see and rejoice… and iniquity shall stop up its mouth … when You sweep the evil empire from the earth.
4. That God rule the world by Godself, in justice and righteousness:
ותמלך אתה ה' לבדך על כל מעשך ... ככתוב ויגבה ה' צב-אות המשפט והא-ל הקדוש נקדש בצדקה
And You, Lord, will rule alone over those You have made…as it is written: “But the Lord of hosts is exalted through justice, and God the Holy One is sanctified through righteousness.”
The posture assumed in this prayer is a recognition that not all people currently fear God or know that God is Sovereign, (because) those who fear God lay unredeemed, while the wicked are empowered.
Only when the righteous get what they deserve and the wicked get what they deserve will all be able to recognize God as the true Judge. In fact, this passage starting with ובכן is a petitionary and reverent reframing of a passage in Ecclesiastes (8:10-14) that engages the very same theme, the suffering of the righteous and the empowerment of the wicked:
ובכן ראיתי רשעים קברים ובאו וממקום קדוש יהלכו וישתכחו בעיר אשר כן עשו גם זה הבל. אשר אין נעשה פתגם מעשה הרעה מהרה על כן מלא לב בני האדם בהם לעשות רע. אשר חטא עשה רע מאת ומאריך לו כי גם יודע אני אשר יהיה טוב ליראי האלקים אשר ייראו מלפניו. וטוב לא יהיה לרשע ולא יאריך ימים כצל אשר איננו ירא מלפני אלקים. יש הבל אשר נעשה על הארץ אשר יש צדיקים אשר מגיע אלהם כמעשה הרשעים ויש רשעים שמגי אלהם כמעשה הצדיקים אמרתי שגם זה הבל.
And so I saw the wicked buried, and they entered into their rest; but they that had done right went away from the holy place, and were forgotten in the city; this also is vanity. Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of human beings if fully set in them to do evil; because a sinner does evil a hundred times, yet lives long—though I yet know that good will come to those who fear God, those who fear before God. But good shall not be for the wicked, and like a shadow, the wicked shall not prolong their days—for the wicked does not fear before God. There is absurdity which is done upon the earth: that there are righteous people who are given the punishments of the wicked, and there are wicked who are given the rewards of the righteous—I say that this too is absurd.
Like the petitioner on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the state of affairs which Kohelet observes is one of injustice—ובכן—and so—he sees the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Yet, unlike the petitioner, while Kohelet tries to retain his faith that Godfearers— יראי אלוקים—will be rewarded in the end, he still describes in frustrating detail to his audience the absurdity that he sees around them. Kohelet wrings his hands and calls out absurdity; he does not turn to God in modest supplication to ask for help.
Reformulated in the liturgical ובכן, we do not opine about the injustices of the world, but instead request that God change it: Give honor ליראיך, to those who fear You. And there’s more to the parallel; one who studies chapter eight of Ecclesiastes will notice its discussions about who holds real power on earth—real שלטון, as echoed in the liturgy.
A few instances:
ב אֲנִי, פִּי-מֶלֶךְ שְׁמֹר, וְעַל, דִּבְרַת שְׁבוּעַת אֱלֹקים.
I [counsel you]: keep the sovereign’s command, and that in regard of the oath of God.
ד בַּאֲשֶׁר דְּבַר-מֶלֶךְ, שִׁלְטוֹן; וּמִי יֹאמַר-לוֹ, מַה-תַּעֲשֶׂה.
Inasmuch as a sovereign’s command is authoritative, and none can say to the sovereign, “What are you doing?”
ח אֵין אָדָם שַׁלִּיט בָּרוּחַ, לִכְלוֹא אֶת-הָרוּחַ, וְאֵין שִׁלְטוֹן בְּיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, וְאֵין מִשְׁלַחַת בַּמִּלְחָמָה; וְלֹא-יְמַלֵּט רֶשַׁע, אֶת-בְּעָלָיו.
No human being has authority over the lifebreath—to hold back the lifebreath; there is not authority over the day of death. There is no mustering out from war; wickedness is powerless to save its owner.
ט אֶת-כָּל-זֶה רָאִיתִי, וְנָתוֹן אֶת-לִבִּי, לְכָל-מַעֲשֶׂה, אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ: עֵת, אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַט הָאָדָם בְּאָדָם--לְרַע לוֹ.
All these things I observed; I noted all that went on under the sun, while people still had authority over people to treat them unjustly.
Who is truly sovereign? The human ruler, who is too powerless to overcome their own mortality? The earthly sovereigns, who use power to harm their subjects, what the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy might call ממשלת זדון, the evil empire? Or is it God, שהשלטן לפניך, before Whom sovereignty abides? The reverent requests we have been making over the High Holidays, for God to show God’s Providence over the world, are actually supplicatory reworkings of Kohelet’s bold and somewhat irreverent empirical assertions about life.
Arguably, this difference between Kohelet’s frustrated faith and our liturgy’s petitionary faith can be summed up in a word: הבל. It is the key word of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and it shows up again and again in our High Holiday mahzor. However, in our mahzor, הבל means fleeting and/or emptiness, like vapor: הלא כל הגבורים כאין לפניך ואנשי השם כלא היו ...כי רב מעשיהם תהו וימי חייהם הבל לפניך ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכל הבל– even the most noble among us have lives that are, in the face of God, empty and fleeting (part of vidduy in hazarat ha-shatz). It is an expression of modesty and self-effacement before God.
In context of Kohelet, however, the more convincing translation of הבל is “absurdity,” as Michael V. Fox translates. It is an accusation that there is an absurd disconnect between what should happen and what does happen. This absurdity rears its head in instances of theodicy—when bad things happen to good people, or the reverse—and even in instances of mortality, where a person recognizes that despite all of their achievements, it all comes to nothing. Hevel represents not humility but indignation.
What does this dialogue between liturgical reverence and Kohelet’s complicated and ongoing cycle of observation, outrage, and faith, offer us?
First, it offers validation, for many people do in fact experience both Kohelet’s and the liturgy’s orientation towards faith: both the ambivalence and anger borne by observing or experiencing tragedy and injustice and a desire to appeal directly to God as redeemer, to pray for clearer intervention.
Moreover, these attitudes need not be mutually exclusive: a person might experience these two general orientations at different points along the same path, within the same life, and even within the same challenging experience. Likewise, one orientation might lead to the other. Imagine the person who beseeches God directly for help, only to find herself or himself drowning in anger and clawing for tenacity in their faith when those prayers do not seem to have been answered. And the reverse—certain scenes in the Book of Ecclesiastes depict a narrator shifting from ruminating about God’s working in the world to recognizing God’s Presence, even if Kohelet never actually turns directly to God to pray.
But the conversation between the liturgy and Kohelet offers something additional that is less about the sense and direction that the liturgy makes of Kohelet, or vice versa, and more about what Kohelet adds to the conversation.
What is most radical about Kohelet is not his empirically based understanding of life, though that is radical. It is not his clinging to faith even without full understanding, though that is challenging.
What is most radical about Kohelet is his never-ending oscillation between those two. Kohelet never actually makes peace with human limitation; instead, he comes up with a modus operandi for living a good life: he adjures his reader to fear God, but is simultaneously unwilling to give up his quest for deeper understanding (12:9):
וְיֹתֵר, שֶׁהָיָה קֹהֶלֶת חָכָם: עוֹד, לִמַּד-דַּעַת אֶת-הָעָם, וְאִזֵּן וְחִקֵּר, תִּקֵּן מְשָׁלִים הַרְבֵּה.
And besides that Kohelet was wise, he also taught the people knowledge; yea, he pondered, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.
For Kohelet, the continuous cycle of learning, thinking, observing, clinging to faith, and starting that process over again actually becomes the meaning of life. The medium is the message. Arguably, the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is part of that cycle—the clinging-to-faith moment acted out in ritual and in speech directly to God. Kohelet, however, reminds us that an honest and profound life entails navigating this pattern over and over again, continuously reaching for an ultimately unrealizable understanding and returning to the keystone of faith.