Journey through Despair

Kohelet Part I: Journey through Despair

Each festival is associated with an emotion, and each is associated with a Biblical work. The emotion of sukkot is ‘simcha’ – ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’.[1] The Biblical book is Kohelet – ‘Ecclesiastes’. At first glance Kohelet appears to be a depressing critique of life and its pursuits. But it turns out that placing it properly in context, and reading it carefully, it maps a great journey from the darkest depths of despair to the joy of a truly fulfilled life. It serves as a map of the journey to joy, no matter how dark a person’s life may seem.

In its opening line, ‘these are the words of Kohelet, son of David, who ruled in Jerusalem.’[2] There are only two sons of David who ruled in Jerusalem.[3] And only one who meets the criteria a few verses later of ruling ‘over all of Israel in Jerusalem’,[4] and that is Solomon. The choice of name ‘Kohelet’ apparently refers to the greatest moment of his life: the moment he completed the Temple in Jerusalem, and ‘Kohel’ – ‘gathered’ – the entire nation together to celebrate the integration of God’s Presence amongst His people.[5]

There is little doubt that the moment felt Messianic. The context of the moment went all the way back, at least as far as the Exodus itself.[6] God had taken His people out of Egypt, desiring a living relationship with them. But Israel had sinned, rejecting God with a golden calf. The people should have been destroyed there and then,[7] but first Moses and then God suggested a new paradigm: that the relationship become a journey;[8] Israel growing and maturing like a child,[9] and God dwelling in a portable tent to travel with the developing nation.[10] Now that Israel was unified under one king, God’s Presence moved into a permanent place inside the beating heart of the nation.[11]

Solomon was not satisfied merely to bring God’s presence to Israel, he wanted to be ‘kohel’ the entire world to come together under God. The book of Kings describes how his wisdom and fame spread across the world.[12] He married first the daughter of Pharaoh and later other royal wives.[13] The book of Kings describes the extent to which neighbouring states became subservient to Israel.[14] For a brief moment it looked like Solomon might succeed in bringing the region to Hashem, in pursuit of his dream to bring humanity back to the Garden of Eden state of perfection.

It failed. Disastrously. Rather than turning the idolatrous nations to God, the numerous wives and political links ended up driving Israel from God to polytheism.[15] By the end of his life the restless vassal states have begun to rebel.[16] Early in the reign of his son the kingdom divides.[17] Solomon’s project had collapsed.

That is the point of departure of the book of Kohelet.[18]

Its first eleven verses form a prologue bemoaning the apparent futility of life.[19] The Talmudic Rabbis report that at one point it was assumed that the negative opening chapters reflect a perspective that contradicts the more overtly religious and God-serving later chapters.[20] They assumed it to be some kind of journal, with its opening chapters coming from a dark place. Picking up clues from within the text itself, the Talmud records a tradition that Solomon had been replaced by Ashmedai, King of the demons.[21] The Maharal[22] explains that the conflict with Ashmedai was one that took place inside the mind of Solomon.[23] Indeed, it appears that the second part of the first chapter actually retells that journey:

Solomon had built the Temple, brought so much of the world to God. He had been ‘Kohelet, king of Israel in Jerusalem’,[24] but looked at a world that still had not returned to perfection. The sin of Adam had not been undone. It was ‘wrecked, unable to be rectified’.[25] So Solomon ‘approached his own inner heart’.[26] In the Shema prayer Moses asks us to ‘serve Hashem with all your hearts’[27] the Rabbis tell is that it means we should love Him with our positive drives and negative ones.[28] Solomon apparently recognised that accumulating wisdom and goodness had not succeeded. He felt that he needed to understand the nature of the darkness that dwells within each of us, and to work out how best to subdue it, transform it and convert it to the service of God. ‘I let my heart know wisdom and also to know foolishness and madness.’[29]

He said to [Ashmedai,]: ‘…In what way are you greater than us?’

[Ashmedai] said to him: ‘release my chain and give me your ring with God’s name engraved on it, and I will show you my strength.’ [Solomon] took the chain off him and he gave him his ring.

Talmud Gittin 68b

 

It was the moment of overreach that lead to the unleashing of inner demonic forces he could not control.

I realised that this too is vexation of the spirit, for [now] the greater the wisdom, the greater the vexation; the more knowledge, the more the pain.

[Ashmedai] threw [Solomon] a distance of four hundred parasangs. With regard to that moment Solomon said: “What profit is there for a person through all of his toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3) Talmud Gittin ibid.

 

Solomon felt like a stranger in his own mind; like an imposter had taken over his body, reducing the old Solomon he still recognised to fleeting moments of clarity.[30] The opening line of Kohelet suggests that when he started writing this work he still felt that when it came to Jerusalem issues - God’s own city - it was still his sane mind in charge; but only over Jerusalem.  On the other hand, when it came to decisions relating to the nation and international affairs, his mind fell under the control of the megalomaniacal polytheistic inner demons.[31] The tragic national results were recorded in the book of Kings.[32]

Solomon ruled over the region, as it is stated: “For he had dominion over all the region on this side of the river, from Tiphsah even to Gaza” (I Kings 5:4).

Later he ruled only over Israel, as it is stated: “I, Kohelet, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:12).

Later, he ruled over only Jerusalem, as it is stated: “The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Talmud Sanhedrin 20b

 

 

But even that would not last long.

 

Ultimately, he ruled over only his staff, as it is stated: “And this was my portion from all of my labour” (Ecclesiastes 2:10).  Talmud ibid.

 

The book of Kohelet chronicles a journey through the depths of despair. But it chronicles this from the perspective of the sane, sober and holy mind[33] that felt trapped in a world of darkness, failure and the demonic power of ‘foolishness and madness’.[34]

Right from the start, Solomon recognised that the antidote required that he rediscover true joy.[35] He set his heart the task to ‘try to find joy, and to find true good’.[36] When that initially failed[37] he allowed his heart to imagine great pleasures,[38] but whilst his heart attempted to muster all its wisdom, he still felt himself to be gripping tight to the insane demonic negative drives, the ‘foolishness’, that guided the search for joy.[39]

His wisdom told him to go back in time and reflect upon all that had brought him true joy in the past.[40] All his great acts, his material wealth and architectural achievements;[41] the palace that reflected the unity of Israel, and the home he had built for the Presence of God.[42] The way he has brought together human talent in artistic and musical perfection.[43] In one Talmudic reading, he even reflected upon the fact that he has been able in the past to totally suppress his negative demonic drives; even the king of the demons had once been totally under his control...[44]

But his heart was not free of those demons now. His darkened mind allowed those thoughts to well up within him. It employed the principle that ‘the greater the wisdom, the greater the vexation’[45] using Solomon’s own wisdom against him. His reflections on that past was now a weapon in the hands of the negative forces.[46] Reflecting on that all he had achieved only served to exacerbate the pain at his current failure. It has all been for the sake of bringing the world to perfection. He had taken the baton from his father David, indeed from the centuries of Israelite history from the ancient ancestors through the redeemed slaves, to the arrival in Jerusalem and building the Temple. He had climbed to the highest peak of the mountain; the dreams of human history had been within grasp. But they had all come crashing down. He had fallen from the great peak and would never be able to return there in his lifetime.

Kohelet regrouped his thoughts. His conclusion was that to achieve joy he had to let go of the ‘foolishness’.  What was abundantly clear was just how disastrous the experiment of unleashing inner darkness had been. The yetzer hora, those negative drives, were unmitigated disasters.

 

‘I could see that the difference between wisdom and foolishness is like the difference between night and day; the wise has eyes in their head, but the one driven by foolishness walks in darkness...’

Kohelet 2:13-14

 

But his heart, in the grip of that very foolishness, would not let him feel or internalise that clarity...

‘What I said in my heart was: “but what happens to the fool is no different to what happens to me, so why did I bother to attain wisdom...”.’

Kohelet 2:15

 

It lead to a place where Solomon actually ‘hated life’[47] and where he contemplated ‘giving up’,[48].

Solomon, the ‘Kohelet’, the one who had unified a nation and brought God’s Presence to a permanent home, now faced a challenge that all the vastness of his previous, unsurpassed wisdom did not seem able to solve.

 

His last gift to Israel is the book of Kohelet.[49] In it he chronicles his step by step journey, that involves redefining the nature of life and our role in it. By the end he was indeed able to remove Ashmedai and sit once again on the throne.[50]

Solomon’s pathway to returning to joy is the journey every one of us can follow. Wherever we are in life, we will inevitably be somewhere along the journey of Kohelet. Its destination is a life committed to God.[51] Its necessary stopping points include the discoveries needed to live in true joy.[52]

Next week’s instalment will provide a brief overview of the steps. It will hopefully help serve as a guide to reading and learning the work.

May we merit to find our place along the journey, and be enlightened by the wisdom, to discover the life of joy, the relationship with God, and the message of Sukkos itself.

 

 

 

[1] Throughout the prayers it is referred to as ‘the time of our joy’. See Lev. 23:40, Deut. 16:14,15. The Rambam’s entire discussion about serving God with joy, takes place at the very end of the laws of Sukkah/Lulav.

[2] Kohelet 1:1

[3] The other is Avshalom, see Sam II, ch.15

[4] Kohelet 1:12. Avshalom’s brief reign involved a divided nation.

[5] Kings I 8:1-2. That gathering took place over Sukkot, also known as ‘the festival of gathering’ (see eg. Deut. 16:13)

[6] See Kings I 8:16

[7] Ex. 32:10

[8] The initial ‘anger’ of God, and prayer by Moses is in Ex.32:11-14; God then saying He will not directly relate to Israel is in 33:1-4, Moses prays for God to ‘travel’ with Israel, 33:15-17; God shows Moses the thirteen attributes of mercy, centred around the idea of patience, and delaying judgement to allow for growth and improvement 34:6-7.

[9] See eg Jer. 31:19

[10] Ex.25:1-8; See King David’s words Sam II 7:2

[11] Kings I 8:12-13

[12] Ibid. 3:5-12, 28; 10:1-13.

[13] Ibid. 3:1; 11:1

[14] Ibid. 5::1; 10:14-15, 23-25

[15] Ibid. 11:4-10

[16] Ibid. 11:14-27

[17] Ibid. ch.12

[18] See R’Yonatan Shir HaShirim Raba 1, that this work was written at the end of his life. See also Talmud Gittin 68a-b quoting the relevant verses from the early chapters of Kohelet with reference to the spiritual collapse of Solomon.

[19] Kohelet 1:2-11. I say ‘apparently’ because Chazal hear within each of these apparent critiques of life, pathways to the solution. See eg. 1:5 according to Talmud, Kiddushin 72b; 1:6-7 in Kohelet Raba on those verses; 1:8 in Talmud Yoma 19b; 1:9-10 in Talmud Shabbat 30b etc. Indeed it was the realisation that these verses allude to service of God that persuaded them that this was not a contradictory work, but one that should be accepted into the Biblical canon (see next footnote).

[20] Talmud Shabbat 30b.

[21] Talmud Gittin 68a-b. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore what ‘demon’ means in Talmudic literature. Suffice it to say it is a force that is destructive.

[22] Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, 16th century.

[23] Maharal, chiddushei Aggadot, Gittin 68a

[24] Kohelet 1:12

[25] Ibid. 1:15

[26] Ibid. 1:16

[27] Deut. 6:5 according to Mishna Berachot 9:5

[28] Mishna ibid.

[29] Kohelet 1:17

[30] See Maharal, Chiddushei Aggadot, Gittin 68a-b

[31] Talmud, Sanhedrin 20b

[32] Kings I ch.11

[33] Shabbat 30b – the Rabbis realised that even the words that sound hopeless (1:3) indicate a deep commitment to God and His Torah.

[34] Kohelet 1:17

[35] Ibid. 2:1

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid. 2:2

[38] Ibid. 2:3 Cf. Kohelet Raba 2:3:1

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. 2:3-10.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid. 2:3 see Kohelet Raba 2:4-8, referencing the constructions in Kings I chs 5-7.

[43] Ibid. 2:8

[44] Talmud Gittin 68a

[45] Kohelet 1:18

[46] Ibid. 2:11

[47] Ibid. 2:18

[48] Ibid. 2:20

[49] Shir Hashirim Raba 1. See also a possible reference to the importance of leaving wisdom eg. Kohelet 9:18-10:1, and in the postscript that reflects upon his achievements, the verse 12:9-10

[50] Talmud Gittin 68b

[51] Kohelet 12:13

[52] See eg. 2:24; 3:22; 5:18; 9:7; 11:9

- October 1st 2020

About the Author

image
Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

More in this series

Religious Warfare?! | Rabbi Reacts

"Telling Children They Belong to a Religion is Child Abuse" | Rabbi Reacts

Atheists DON'T BELIEVE in anything, they just believe in ONE GOD LESS' | Rabbi Reacts

Why Would God Wait so Long? | Rabbi Reacts

God is Evil?! | Rabbi Reacts

In Conversation with John Lennox | The Rabbi Rowe Podcast #1

Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

Noach: Is Building an Ark Enough?

The Fourteen Step Journey

Journey through Despair

Exploring Rosh Hashana

What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

Stand Up and Be Counted

Return to Eden

I get why God cares about all the big things – what about all those details

The Long Road Back

Coronavirus - is it insensitive to talk about silver linings?

Pinchas - Rise to the Occasion

Many Tribes, One People

The Story of Ruth (Part Four): To Heal the World

The Story of Ruth (Part Three): Relationships and Surrogates

The Story of Ruth (Part 2) - Beyond Givers and Takers 

The Story of Ruth (Part One): The Problem with Kindness

Lighting the Fire of Hope: A Deeper Look into Lag Ba’Omer

Acharei Mos – Kedoshim: When Law Becomes Marriage

Tazria-Metzora: Isolation and the Reconstruction of Society

Why did God put us in Egypt in the first place?

At Home With the Kids

Haggadah Series Part 1: Four Sons or One? What is the Haggadah trying to achieve?

Coronavirus: A Time to Spread Positivity

A Jewish Perspective on Coronavirus and Isolation

11 Thoughts About Covid-19, Isolation, Anxiety and the Greatness Within

Is Religion Behind Most Wars?

The Haggadah Explained - Video Series

Is There Morality Without a Divine Text?

Heated Politics at the Shabbat Table

The Big Question: Why Didn't God Wait for Cameras?

The Four Children

The Four Verses - The Core Message

The 10 Plagues & The 10 Commandments: Decreation & Recreation

Bitter Herbs - When Luxury Becomes Slavery

Happy Purim from Aish

No Need to Move the Goalposts

Related resources

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Veyachi: The Power of Positivity

By- Rabbi Dovid Lichtig

I Closed My Eyes….

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Do Not Disturb

By- Rebbetzin Shalvie Friedman

Vayishlach – Your Money or Your Life?

By- Rabbi Moshe Friedman (Rav Mo)

An Article on Gratitude

By- Rebbetzin Adina Strom

Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Four More Years! Make “US” Great Again

By- Rabbi Gideon Goldwater

Noach: Is Building an Ark Enough?

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Are YOU relevant in a post-COVID world?

By- Steve Herz

Spirituality in the Postmodern World

By- Rabbi Dovid Lichtig

A Vision of Leadership

By- Shira Druion

The Fourteen Step Journey

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Winners and Losers of the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement

By- Aish UK

Journey through Despair

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

An Exclusive Interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

By- Rabbi Ari Kayser

The Sound of Music

By- Rabbi Ari Kayser

Trial by Twitter

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Exploring Rosh Hashana

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Copyright © Aish UK