The book of Koheles (Ecclesiastes) was authored by King Solomon, who was “wiser than all men...” (Kings I, 5:11). He wrote this book with Divine Inspiration. In it, he analyzes which is the best philosophy for man to follow. The Rabbis intended on hiding his book. They were concerned, lest the masses misconstrue King Solomon’s intent, and his words be gravely understood in a contradictory or heretical sense. However, the very fact that King Solomon wrote in such a fashion should draw our intrigue. As he could have written in a clear fashion, his purposeful, cryptic and seemingly contradictory style must carry its own lesson, aside from the underlying content.
Why did King Solomon write this way, and in this book only? (In contrast to Proverbs, for example.) Perhaps, when presenting a work on the correct philosophy, King Solomon wished to expose the false philosophies. To do so, he verbalizes the popular and “natural” base emotions. On the surface, it appears as though such verbalization is an endorsement. It may sound as though the King is vocalizing his own views. But in fact, he is not. He verbalizes false views so they may exposed. Fallacy is not left unanswered, with no correction. King Solomon enunciates folly, and exposes the errors contained in these falsehoods, finally teaching the true philosophy.
Why did the Rabbis say they wished to store away this book of Koheles? Was it simply an expression of concern? Or, perhaps, this was an intentionally publicized sentiment. That is, the Rabbis wished to express this very concept; Koheles is in fact a series of statements, which only ‘sound’ like support for heresy. By making such a statement, the Rabbis meant to teach that one must understand that portions of this book must be read as articulations of false ideas, not a support of them, and solely for the purpose of exposing their fallacy.
Pay careful attention to King Solomon’s commencing words, with them, he sets the stage for the rest of his work. If King Solomon instructs us on a correct philosophy, he imparts basic ideas on psychology. By doing so, he enables us to determine if a philosophy suits our design. Without knowledge of human psychology, we have no means to judge a philosophy as deviating or conforming to man’s design.
1:1) “The words of Koheles, son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
King Solomon wished to inform us of his qualifications to expose truths herein. “Koheles” is a derivative from the root “kahal”, meaning, a group. He grouped, or gathered much knowledge. He was the son of a wise man, King David. As “king”, King Solomon had all at his disposal to gather to himself the wise of his generation. His ideas were tested against the best minds; hence, his conclusions deserve earnest attention. “Jerusalem” was the seat of wisdom. (Sforno)
We are informed of the King’s outstanding circumstances to study Torah and life, and impart his refined findings.
1:2) “Futility of futilities, says Koheles, futility of futilities, all is futile.”
If we count the referred number of “futilities”, we derive the number “7”. How? Each word “futile” in the singular indicates 1, and each in the plural, 2. So the phrase, “futility of futilities” contains 3 references. Seven “futilities” are derived by adding all instances in this verse. 7 is indicative of the 6 days of Creation plus G-d’s rest on the seventh day. King Solomon associates futility with the Creation! The Rabbis asked, “How can Solomon deny what G-d said, “and G-d saw all that He made, and behold it (Creation) was very good?” (Gen. 1:31) But King Solomon did not suggest Creation is futile. His intent is that when Creation is not used properly, only then it is futile. But when used properly, G-d is correct, “it is very good.”
So we must ask, “when is Creation not used properly, and when is it used properly? Additionally, aside from numerics, this verse must make sense in its plain reading. What is disturbing is what King Solomon means by “futility of futilities”. I understand what a ‘futility’ is; if someone seeks something vain, or improper, we would call this a futility. But what is the additional futility to which King Solomon refers to as “futility of futilities”? What can be futile about a futility?
A Rabbi once answered this question with novel insight; King Solomon’s second “futility” is referring to “fantasy”. Not only is the pursuit of money (for itself) a futile endeavor, but also one’s fantasy about his plan - before he acts - is an additional futility. “Fantasizing” about any material pleasure is what King Solomon refers to. Not only is the acquisition a futility, but one’s energies being used for fantasy prior to the acquisition is an additional futility. King Solomon teaches that man doesn’t simply follow a emotional attraction, while his thoughts are blank. No. Man acts out his emotion as the last step in a series. Man’s first step is his is arousal; he then conjures up a picture-perfect fantasy. He imagines the abundant wealth and possessions he will soon acquire. But this is all fantasy. It is a futile use of his energies, which could have been used to study what true happiness comes from. This is valuable time lost. Fantasizing is a futility, in addition to the actual amassing of wealth.
Our first question is “when is the physical an evil or a good?” It is a good, provided one uses it as a means for a life of wisdom. All was created for the sake of man’s search for truth. If man uses any part of Creation without this goal in mind, then the object forfeits is goal, and so does man. Of course, man has emotions, and they must be satisfied on some level. But satisfaction is so man is content enough to live a life as a philosopher. Torah does not prohibit overindulgence, but it also is not praised. “Kedoshim tihiyu”, “Sanctified shall you be” teaches that even with what is permissible, man should curb his indulgence.
1:3) “What additional (gain) is there to man, in all his labor that he labors under the sun?”
What is King Solomon referring to here? Rashi explains this to mean “earnings plus extra”. What “extra” is Rashi referring to? Is King Solomon criticizing one who labors to eat? This cannot be. But we do notice that he does not say “gain”, but “additional gain”. What is additional, over and above the earnings man receives for his labor? We must also ask a more primary question: what is so important about this question, that the King started his book with it?
One may view King Solomon’s verse as his own question. But you may also read it as the King’s verbalization of other peoples’ question. Meaning, King Solomon is merely reiterating the futile thoughts on man’s mind, not his own. King Solomon was exceedingly wise, let us not make the error of assuming his thoughts matched ours. In this verse, King Solomon points to an emotional need in man. This need is the “extra” which man seeks out, in addition to his earnings. What is this “extra”? It may be a feeling of honor one desires, so he works hard for decades to rise above others for this attention. He may wish to be viewed as a sophisticate, so he dons certain clothing and dines at exclusive locations. But all these needs, emotional projections, or self-images, are of no use to one seeking the correct life. King Solomon correctly states, “what extra is there?” King Solomon teaches that man should be anchored in reality, and not strive to concoct a plan for achieving imagined goals. Honor is in one’s mind, as is one’s self-image of a sophisticate. Living in fantasy is futile. Only what is real, is worthwhile. Don’t seek the “extra”, the imagined self-images.
A Rabbi once taught that King Solomon is exposing our base drive, underlying all others; the need for “accomplishment”. Man is seeking to accomplish much in his life. Why? After one’s needs are met, it appears that further accomplishment serves man’s desire to remove insecurity from himself. Too often though, a realistic security grows into an abundance of wealth, which is never spent. This too is yet another emotion, but it is the primary, propelling force in man leading him to other imagined goals. This need to “accomplish” takes on many faces.
“Under the sun”: The fantasy of immortality is essential, if one is to create his other fantasies. If we knew we were dying, we could not invest our energies into amassing wealth. We would admit our time is ending. The reality of our mortality would be too stark, and it would suck the air from our sails. For this reason, King Solomon ends this verse with “under the sun.” He thereby teaches that the remedy to a life of fantasy is to contemplate that we have a ‘term’. “Under the sun” means, on Earth, a place that is temporal. This dose of reality helps one to temper his energies, and accept his mortality. With this reality factor, man will not so quickly indulge his fantasies. He will be safeguarded to keep his attention to what is truly real - G-d’s wisdom is eternal. In truth, man should be attached to what is eternal - G-d and His wisdom.
Sforno writes on this verse, (1:3) “And he (King Solomon) said this on man’s work under the sun in matters which are transient. For what use is this, that it is fitting for an intelligent being to strive at all to achieve (these matters)?” Sforno teaches that regarding matters, which are transient and temporal, man must not invest any time into them. It is a waste.
1:4) “A generation comes, and a generation goes, and the land eternally stands.”
What is the relevance of a “generation”, and why do I need to know that one comes and goes? As we read through the book of Koheles, we must determine whether a given verse is King Solomon’s advice, or is it his voicing of the ignorant opinions of others. The verses will be either King Solomon’s proper instruction, or his exposure of man’s destructive emotional counsel. Be sensitive to the issues, and be mindful that this book was written by our wisest sage, and only after he analyzed man’s behavior. Remember; he was King David’s son, he was king, he had all the sages at his disposal to discuss and arrive at decisive, intelligent, and true concepts.
Clearly, with this verse, King Solomon attacks the core of the immortality fantasy, i.e., not only do individuals expire, but also so do generations! Individual man is dwarfed by a generation. The insignificance of the self is undeniably admitted in the face of “mankind”. And in turn, mankind’s expiration dwarfs one’s individual, immortality fantasy. King Solomon wishes man to undermine this destructive fantasy of immortality. By doing so, man will not find the backdrop necessary for painting elaborate fairy tales for himself. He will be forced to confront reality, and will then be guided only by truth.
“...and the land eternally stands.” If man is to truly accept his own mortality, there must be that which he recognizes “outlives” him. For if all would expire with one’s own death, the immortality fantasy would be replaced with yet another destructive phantasm; the ego. If one was unsure whether the world continued when he was gone, he would thereby feed his ego. Therefore, King Solomon aligns man’s expiration with the realization that the world continues - even without us. The knowledge that the universe continues without us, is the necessary measuring rod for our mortality. There must be something, to which we may contrast our lifespan, and that is the universe, which “eternally stands”. Contrasting the eternity of the universe to one’s own few decades, man is helped to confront his mortality.
1:5) “And the sun shines, and the sun sets, and unto its place it yearns (to) shine there.”
This is a prime example of the universe’s unrelenting nature. This sentiment substantiates the previous comment that only the world endures. It draws on an example of the most prominent, celestial sphere. We also learn that a created entity, undiluted with extraneous agendas, i.e., the sun, performs perfectly when it functions precisely in line with its nature, designed by G-d. Man would be wise to take this lesson to heart.
But what strikes us is the term “yearns” being applied to an inanimate object. How can the sun “yearn”?
More than others, there is one element that is essential to our understanding of human psychology: the unconscious. This is the ever-functioning but hidden part of our emotional make up. We have many desires, fears, loves, hates, and numerous other emotions, that are completely hidden from our consciousness. We are truly blind to them. These emotions, wishes and fears are manifest in our dreams; they cause our “slips of the tongue”, and continually - from ‘behind the curtain’ - motivate us. If we do not analyze our dreams, and examine our actions and feelings, we lose out greatly. We forfeit our perfection, as we allow these unconscious forces to control us, and not the reverse. Perfection requires one to be in as much control of his actions and opinions as possible. Although many emotions are elusive and remain undetected, simply not reflecting on ourselves is unacceptable.
What is it that “yearns” to shine? What is “shining”? Perhaps King Solomon alludes to this unconscious, which does both; it “rises”and “sets”. It “rises”, as it pushes forth its force into what is in daylight (rising), i.e., consciousness. It also “sets”, as it recedes back into its hidden realm, the unconscious. It “yearns to shine,” means that the unconscious always seek to affect man, who is functioning in a waking state. “Yearning” to shine means that the unconscious forces are relentless in their “desire” to control our actions.
“And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the coming of dawn”. (Gen. 32:25) The verse says that Jacob was alone, yet he wrestled with someone - a contradiction. A Rabbi resolved this contradiction by explaining that Jacob was in fact alone, but was really wrestling with himself; Jacob was the “man”. Jacob was wrestling with his unconscious. “until the coming of dawn”, means that which could not exist in daylight, in consciousness. We see daylight referring to man’s consciousness, and night referring to the unconscious. Jacob was fighting with some internal, unconscious element in his personality, indicated by the struggle ending at daybreak.
I find King Solomon’s selected metaphor revealing; he uses the sun (shemesh) for this lesson. “Shemesh” also means a servant, a “shamashe.” Perhaps this is fitting, as the unconscious should serve us, not control us.
1:6) “It travels to the South, and circles to the North, circling, circling, travels the wind, and on its circuit does the wind return.”
If I remember correctly, a Rabbi once explained this verse to mean that man continually sets his sights on new ventures. Traveling to the “South or North” means “making plans to accomplish new goals”. He wishes to “get somewhere” in life. But such a path is not favorable. Perhaps we learn that in truth, one only imagines that he is “progressing” when he meets his own, subjective goals. His desire to progress is only progress in his own terms, and not true progress according to Torah perfection. Man wishes to build empires, but in G-d’s eyes, they are meaningless, and in fact, man regresses with such activity. How does King Solomon indicate that such a desire is fruitless? “Circling, circling” describes a repeating pattern. One does not actually change his location, he circles on the same parcel of ground, not moving forward. This rotating activity is akin to one who does not see true progress in his life. Man imagines he progresses with his material successes and plans, but in truth, he keeps going in “circles”.
Here too King Solomon utilizes an appropriate metaphor; the “wind”. We too refer to man’s strength as his wind; “he knocked the wind out of me”, “he lost the wind from his sails”, “he popped your balloon”. King Solomon teaches that man directs his energies towards goals to give us a sense of worth. The underlying need for accomplishment has gone unchecked, and propels him to the “South and the North.” Instead, man should contemplate that his energies are better used in search of truth, instead of reacting to the unconscious, pushing him to make himself great through empire building, fame and riches. Such actions are the result of the imagination, and not a thought-out philosophy, which exposes such vanity.
1:7) “All the rivers go to the sea, but the sea is not full, to the place where the rivers go, there they return to go.”
“Water” is the perfect object to embody this verse’s lesson, taught by a Rabbi. This verse is a metaphor for man’s libido; his energies. This great psychological, reservoir of energy is the cause for the previous verse’s teaching; that man has a great drive to accomplish.
Man’s energies are always “flowing”, and they seek to become “full”. “But the sea is not full”, that is, man does not become fully satisfied. As man’s emotions are satisfied, he again and seeks a new emotional satisfaction. Satisfaction, therefore, is temporary. Where man’s emotions flow, “there they return to go”, i.e., it is an endless process.
“All the rivers go to the sea” indicates that all man’s energies have one focus for that period. Man is usually pulled in one direction, conveyed here by “sea”, one destination. It is interesting that “rivers” are also mentioned in Genesis, also in the commencing chapters. Is there a relationship?
1:8) “All matters are wearying, man is unable to describe them, the eye does not become satisfied in seeing, the ear does not become full from hearing.”
Why are the eye and ear unable to behold their complete sensations? Is King Solomon describing the ineptitude of these organs? Or, perhaps he means to point us towards understanding that element in man, which seeks to “behold all.” The latter would indicate that man has a desire to have complete knowledge in a given field - but he cannot. This desire stems from another need; security. Man wishes to have a complete grasp on matters, otherwise, he feels inept. This wearied state; King Solomon says is due to man’s attempt to secure complete knowledge. Man desires to be secure that he has all the answers. Man is better advised to accept his limited scope of apprehension, than to deny his feeble nature and strive for the impossible. Seeing and hearing are the two major senses used in learning. Being “unable to describe them”, teaches that man wishes to behold wisdom, so much that he can competently discourse on matters - he wishes self sufficiency, the removal of insecurity.
1:9) “That what was, it will be, and what was done, will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
What human attitude is King Solomon responding to here? Note that he addresses both the “what”, (things), and “events” (what was “done”.) This encompasses all of man’s experiences on Earth: man relates either to objects, or to events, categorized as “space and time”.
King Solomon teaches that man seeks out “novelty”, looking for that which is new in objects, or in events. Why? What satisfaction does man imagine he will experience with something new, or a new event? Rashi correctly writes that in the universe, all has been created during Creation. Nothing afterwards can be created anew. In contrast, new ideas are in fact new to us, and afford enlightenment, and the invigoration that the soul is designed to seek.
“Novelty” is not an ends in itself, but a sought after ‘cure’ for man’s stagnation. Man inescapably seeks enlightenment, but he seeks it in the physical realm, “under the sun”, the arena which King Solomon critiques. Man will only find the rejuvenating pleasure of novelty in the area of wisdom. All Earthly attempts to fulfill this need will result in dissatisfaction.
Novelty has a funny way of vanishing immediately. Something is “new”, as long as it goes inexperienced. It is a “Catch-22.” Before we attain something, or go somewhere, it is new, but we have yet to enjoy our imagined pleasure. And once we attain it, or get there, it is no longer truly new. How many times have we anticipated arriving at a new destination, only to be disappointed that when we arrive, the novel and alluring element of our vacation, i.e., being “there”, goes unrealized. We are not “there”, because once we get “there”, it is now “here”.
1:10) “There is a thing that you will say, ‘Look at this, it is new’, (but) it was already in history, that was before us.”
This verse seems repetitive. Also, what is the specific “thing” to which King Solomon refers?
A Rabbi taught that this verse discusses the emotion of “modernity”. Man wishes to feel that he lives in THE generation. We hear people ridicule ancient societies as backwards. We have electronics; we have something new. We live on the final frontier. We are different than all other generations.
Why do we wish to feel we are the most advanced generation? I believe such an emotion of modernity, attempts to deny mortality. If we live in the most advanced generation, this means, ipso facto, that no other generation may pass us: we will never die.
The cure for the imagined sense of modernity is to realize that others before us experienced what we do. Contemplating that other people have expired with history, forces us to recognize that what we experience as new, will also meet wit the same fate.We must identify with other generations - they have come and gone. We are no different. We too will go the way of the world. This realization, that all mankind faces the same fate, enables man to apply this truth to himself. King Solomon describes the problems and offers correct solutions. He desired the good for all mankind. This good, means knowledge of what is truth, and a dismissal of fallacy.
King Solomon describes so many of man’s pitfalls. Did G-d design man with destructive elements? No, He did not, “and behold it is very good.” He designed us with attitudes and emotions, which are to be studied, and directed towards living an extremely happy existence. “Ki yetzer lave ha-adom ra m’na-urav”, “Mans’ inclinations are evil from youth” (Gen. 8:21) means that only our “inclinations”, not our faculties, are not steered by intelligence initially. They drive towards what is evil and harmful. But with devoted study and self-application of our knowledge, we are well equipped to direct our energies, emotions and attitudes towards the good. Man’s mind is more powerful and convincing than his emotions. With intelligence and proofs, we are fully capable of attaching ourselves to the life outlined in the Torah.
By nature, man wishes to follow what he sees as true and good. This is our inherent design. As we study more and more, we abandon what is false, and naturally follow what is proven as good. Once we see a new idea clearly, we will naturally follow it. All that is required, is to devote many hours daily to study, and endure our research and analysis, until we arrive at decisively, clear and proven opinions.
Man’s drives are only evil from youth. By nature, the emotions have a head start on intelligence. This does not spell inevitable catastrophe. Our continual Torah study will refine our thoughts, to the point, that we see with ultimate clarity, how to use our energies to attain a truly enjoyable and beneficial existence.
1:11) “There is no remembrance to the first ones, and also to the later ones that will be, there will be no remembrance to them, with those that will be afterwards.”
Facing mortality, so clearly spelled out in the previous verse, King Solomon now closes the loop by addressing man’s final hope for mortality; to be memorialized in death. If man cannot achieve immortality in life, he still attempts to secure a memorial for himself. He wishes to go down in history. This fantasy strives at securing some vestige of his existence. But this will not be. How does King Solomon help man abandon such futility? He asks man to recall previous generations, and man cannot, “There is no remembrance to the first ones”. This is an iron-clad argument against hoping for memorialization - it does not happen. King Solomon wisely advances man’s thoughts to the future, as if to say, “You think YOU will be remembered? Let us see if this happens”. The King’s response: There is no remembrance to the first ones”. It does not happen to them, it will not happen to you, nor to any future generation. Reality is the best teacher, and King Solomon places reality between man’s eyes.
The Verses Defined
1. King Solomon’s “Qualifications” to address this topic.
2. “Fantasy”: The subject of Koheles.
3. “Accomplishment”: Man’s primary fantasy.
4. “Immortality”: The backdrop necessary for fantasy.
5. “The Unconscious”: The source of man’s fantasy life.
6. “Progress”: the goal of accomplishment.
7. “Libido”: Man’s unrelenting energies, seeking satisfaction, and propelling his search for happiness.
8. “Independence”: Mans attempt to remove all insecurities by attempting to grasp complete knowledge.
9. “Novelty”: Where it is, and is not found; an inherent need in man.
10. “Modernity”: Striving for immortality in life.
11. “Memorialization”: Striving for immortality in death.
Verse 11 concludes the first section of Koheles. With G-d’s help, we will continue.