Kohelet Part II: The Fourteen Step Journey
Last week we explored the background to Kohelet, and the opening two chapters according to the insight provided by Chazal. King Solomon’s life had been about bringing creation to perfection. He had built the permanent house of Hashem in Jerusalem, and become a ‘Kohelet’ – literally ‘gatherings’ – in the act of gathering the nation to join as one under God. He began to explore bringing all the nations of the world together under God too. But something went wrong.
The book of Kings describes the attempt of Solomon to marry as many wives, from as many nations, as he could. Rather than bring those nations under God, they turned Israel into a polytheistic haven. The rabbis of the Talmud assert that Solomon had deliberately played with the fire in unleashing an inner demonic force. He had suppressed all his inner darkness, and had even the ‘King of the Demons’ so tied up as to wonder if it really had much power. His understanding was that the reason he had failed to bring the world to perfection was that he had yet to bring ‘evil’ under the kingdom of God, and so decided to slightly loosen his connection with Hashem in order to feel the destructive impulse of the ‘king of the demons’ come alive in him. He sought to coax out the great spiritual virus, so to speak, in order to tame it and bring it under Hashem’s will.
The experiment failed disastrously, and he was left bemoaning life. The darkness took him over. Nationally Israel fell into idolatry. Personally, he began to doubt whether the world really could be rectified, and his attempts to produce inner joy failed. Like a spider trapped in a web, the more he struggled to find happiness, the more trapped his thoughts became. All looked utterly hopeless.
That is the state that Kohelet has reached by the time he gets to chapter 2 verse 24. It is from then until the end of the book that Kohelet maps for us his own journey from darkness to light. In this essay we will explore the key fourteen steps that Kohelet took, and advocates for, from 2:24 all the way through until 9:18.
The First Step: Gratitude
The attempt to use his wisdom to free himself from the grip of his inner demonic voices, had utterly failed. But perhaps therein lay a solution. Or at least a hint of a solution. Perhaps he should start by simply switching off his wisdom. Perhaps he should stop struggling and giving even greater power to the darkness that had enveloped him.
Perhaps he should start with a source of happiness that needs no wisdom and no contemplation… for there is a state of mind that can indeed be described as ‘good’ that requires no journey and no success at all. It is the state of gratitude, or in Hebrew ‘hakarat hatov’ - literally the recognition or awareness of the good.
Is it not good for man that he should eat and drink and show himself goodness that has come from his toil?
To notice the small blessings of life, and to ‘show himself’ that goodness is the beginning of a crucial key. It is the moment of recognising the good. All around us our lives are so full of blessings. From eyes that work, to legs that walk, we are simply surrounded by things that we would not trade for enormous amounts of money. We are truly blessed.
A person who recognises just how blessed they truly are, is a person who has found a pathway to break out of the morass of self-pity, and how has found a way to connect to Hashem.
During the deep dark bout of self-pity, a person views him (or her) self as the centre of the world. Throughout the chapter Solomon constantly referred to ‘myself’ (‘ani). The core of foolishness is self-centredness. If I try to be the centre of the world, then it will be a place filled with pain, frustration, resentment and fear.
Gratitude allows a person to start to step outside of their little world, and to start to appreciate things. The ungrateful person fears that any acceptance of a gift, or recognition that they have received something, would imply weakness, dependence and vulnerability.
But one who ‘recognises the good’ is one who accepts that they have more power by plugging into the gifts and blessings of the world. Paradoxically, in admitting a certain level of not being in control, the person opens themselves up to experience a world that is not self centred but that is God centred. And even just a tiny glimpse of that is an immensely enriching and rewarding part of the journey.
Kohelet still has a long way to go. But he has made a crucial start. And that start serves as a guide for all of us.
The Second Step: Bitachon – Trust in God
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted…
He has made all beautiful in its right time; He also puts eternity in their mind, but without man ever guessing, from first to last, all the things that God brings to pass.
In a world of gratitude comes the recognition that it is not we who are in charge, but God. There are times for things that feel good and times for things that feel bad. It is not up to us to try to rewrite the script. The world is better when we do not try to control it. We too are better off when we do not try to control it. We should let each moment come and accept that there is a plan greater than we are.
I realised, too, that all that God has brought to pass will recur evermore: Nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it— and God has brought to pass that men fear/revere Him.
Kohelet’s journey began with his desire to understand and ultimately to control evil. But now he is no longer is studying the matter of evil in isolation. Rather he is studying ‘all’. All includes evil
‘He Who formed light and created darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil’
‘He Who formed light and created darkness, who makes peace and creates all’
To properly understand the nature of evil, one needs to understand the nature of the big picture. Kohelet has just mentioned times of love and times of hate. A balance that exists in creation.
His reasoning is that perhaps he was wrong to try to control things. He should let go and allow Hashem to run things; allow things to be variously good and bad, trusting that God’s plan is beyond us.
The Fourth Step: Recognising the Intolerability of Suffering
Koehelet offers two critiques to the idea of bitachon. The first he feels able to parry, but the second forces him to look further. The first problem is that if we are just meant to sit back and trust God, then what actual role do we humans have at all? In what sense are we any more significant than animals?
I said within my heart about matter of men, God has chosen them, but that is to face the fact that they are beasts.
For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.
The critique continues by pointing out that both man and beast die; any difference in afterlife is not part of our perception here and not relevant to what it is that makes us truly significant.
Kohelet does not answer the critique head on. He recognizes that the demon is more powerful than he. Part of his state of acceptance of God’s Will is to accept that he does not have all the answers. So he reiterates the need for gratitude, adding the need to accept what we do not know and do not understand.
I saw that there is nothing better for man than to enjoy his possessions, since that is his portion. For who can enable him to see what will happen afterward?
The story could not, however, end here. For this is not the pinnacle of serving Hashem. It is one thing to have faith and trust on one’s own behalf, and to accept all that seems imperfect in one’s own life. But it is quite another thing to just sit back passively when others are suffering. The suffering of others shatters any indifference that could come about if a person stopped at bitachon and never took it further.
I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.
It is one thing to say that we do not understand God’s ways, that sometimes painful things have to happen, and that man is ultimately best off in a state of acceptance. That is all well and good until we meet the tears of the oppressed. It is difficult to accept that we should just be accepting of it all. And worse than that: when the suffering of humans is caused by humans, surely that tells us that the healing of humans can also be caused by humans.
What, if anything, can be done? How are we to make sense of human oppression?
The Fifth Step: Discovering the Roots of Suffering in Eden, Adam and Self-Centredness
The possibility of humans having enough power to oppress other humans even when Hashem may not have directly decreed it is one of the transformations that happened to human freewill only after Adam had sinned. It was not part of the pre-sin freewill.
So the tragic possibility of human oppression is part of the disaster of the events in the Garden of Eden. It is to these very events that he hints in these verses:
Then I praised those who died long since more than those who are still (‘adena) living;
and happier than either are those who have not yet (‘aden) come into being and have never witnessed the miseries that go on under the sun.
Twice a version of the Hebrew word for Eden appears. Solomon does not choose his words carelessly. He has not used these words before in Kohelet. These verses that describe the benefit of death over life. They echo the very choice of man who chose a tree that brought death over the tree of life. The verses speak of the pain at the oppression of one human over another. They echo the moment when man unleashed evil, and took partial control over human destiny in this world.
Kohelet has traced the roots of human oppression to the Garden of Eden.
It may not be obvious why that would be the location of oppression in Torah; until we reflect upon the very first act of one human oppressing another: the murder of Hevel (Abel) by his brother Cain.
I have also noted that all labor and skillful enterprise come from men’s envy (Heb. Kinah) of each other—another futility (Hevel) and pursuit of wind!
Kohelet diagnoses the root cause of human oppression: the jealousy that exists between us. The Hebrew word for jealousy (kinah) shares the same root as the Hebrew word for Cain. Both connote a desire to possess, acquire and control. In a world post-Eden, a world of humans who had been recreated under the domination of sin, there were deep fears and deep desires to control.
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have acquired (kaniti) a male child from Hashem.”
It was the very possessiveness at the core of Cain’s being that became manifest as jealousy towards his brother.
Cain’s killing of his own brother is the exemplar of the self-destructive insanity that jealousy brings. Before he killed Hevel he could have had everything. The tragic end of Cain served as a metaphor for the self-destruction that jealousy always brings.
Both Cain and Abel were rooted in a world of self-centredness! The reason people oppress one another is the same as the reason they create futile pursuits to medicate themselves out of true authentic living.
That should come as little surprise for the entire essence of the sin of Adam was to become like gods, seeing reality through our own little eyes.
The Sixth Step: Other Centredness
Armed with this insight it is clear to Kohelet where he had gone wrong. He has arrived at an understanding of the underlying issues, and he is ready to start moving forward to find solutions. The tense changes to the present. Starting with the word ‘good’ the work will now chronicle his journey to the good.
Two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings.
For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe betide him who is alone and falls with no companion to raise him!
Further, when two lie together they are warm; but how can he who is alone get warm?
Also, if one attacks, two can stand up to him. A threefold cord is not readily broken!
The moment of stretching beyond himself is a key moment in Solomon’s redemption. In the text of Kohelet, having reached out to others, and having achieved an important sense of humility, he is able to view his inner struggles differently.
Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer has the sense to heed warnings.
For the first time Kohelet seems to directly address his mistake. It is clear to him that the work he did as a youthful king, to attain true wisdom, made him a better person and better king, than the older version of himself that had overreached and become taken over with the negative side.
The king he had been when he was younger, had been a Solomon expressing his yetzer tov – his positive drives. The version later in life expressed yetzer hora – his negative drives.
What is surprising, though, is the identity of the positive voice with a ‘child’, and the negative, destructive voice with the adult. But the secret being expressed here is that the self-centred perspective is what we start our lives with, and it never really leaves us. If we are twenty years old, then the selfish voice is a twenty-year old adult. The ‘other-centred’ voice does not enter until bar/bat mitzva. If we are twenty years old then that latter voice is a seven or eight year old ‘child’. It is a newcomer in our mind. The neurons that align with it in our brains and thoughts are nowhere near as embedded as the older self-centred ones.
Solomon originally recognised the pain of suffering in this world, and located its cause in self-centredness. He began to focus on other-centredness. That allowed him to reflect upon the fact that left to his own devices he simply could never defeat the negative drives.
The negative inclinations grow in strength against a person every day; if not for the Holy One, no-one would stand a chance.
Talmud, Kiddushin, 30b
His earlier victories against them had been temporary. They had him in their grip now. he needed to reach out to receive help if he were to stand any chance against them. and that is precisely what he did.
Solomon circulated from door to door, saying: “I, Kohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Kohelet 1:12). When he arrived at the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem the sages said: Now, an imbecile does not fixate on one matter all of the time, so what is this matter? Is this man perhaps telling the truth that he is Solomon?...
Talmud Gittin 68b
The Talmud sees the moment that Solomon reached out beyond himself, in humility, as the essential turning point in his struggle.
But the need to reach beyond himself points in the direction of the need to reach out even further – to the Creator of the universe Himself…
The Seventh Step, Carefully Approaching God
The sins of Adam and Cain were rooted in self-centredness. But the antidote to self-centredness is not merely seeking unity with others. It also requires placing God at the centre of our lives. Kohelet discovered the need to seek out God and to develop ‘awe’ of God earlier, in the second step, so there is no need to repeat it explicitly now. but the temptation to dive forward into a relationship with God right now would be an error. For one whose heart remains conflicted, and whose foolish voice drives them as much as their ‘wisdom’ voice, will struggle to approach God without simply projecting themselves onto God. It is to this risk that Kohelet turns his attention next:
Be not overeager to go to the House of God: more acceptable is obedience than the offering of fools, for they know nothing [but] to do wrong.
Keep your mouth from being rash, and let not your throat be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; that is why your words should be few.
Just as dreams come with much brooding, so does foolish utterance come with much speech.
Maimonides explains that when approaching God, filled with self-centred thoughts and feelings, we inevitably end up making God in our image. We think we are serving God, but in fact we are serving ourselves. Typically, we may be trying to get God to serve us. It can be anything from asking why God doesn’t behave in ways we would like Him too (‘surely God should want what I want?!’) to a sense of ego and power that comes from being able to say God is on my side. Projecting ourselves onto God ensures that whenever we listen out for the ‘what God is saying’ all we hear back is what we are saying. There could be little that could be more dangerous.
So how do we know whether our inner self is pure enough and humbled enough to genuinely approach God? The litmus test of inner conflict is the feeling that our commitments are not real. When we commit, but feel an inner conflict, we make promises and vows. Not just to convince others that we are serious, but to convince ourselves.
When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. For He has no pleasure in fools; what you vow, fulfill.
It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill.
The Talmud records a debate as to whether, according to Solomon, it is better not to vow at all, than it is to vow and fulfil it. At first this seems inexplicable; surely vowing and fulfilling ought to be the best? But the point is that the very need to vow expresses inner uncertainty that our commitment is genuine at all; it expresses inner conflict. Our goal ought to be to reach the level of inner pureness, where commitments in our mind are totally binging.
The Talmud has a name for one whose thoughts are genuine commitments, and who ‘speaks truth in their heart’. They are called ‘one who is in awe of God’.
Can someone just think they would like to buy something, and actually be obligated as if they had purchased it?
Yes they can, if they are ‘in awe of God’, fulfilling the verse ‘he speaks truth in his heart’ (Psalms 15:2)
Bava Basra 88a
Kohelet employs the same term. No longer is ‘awe of God’ the goal of where we would like to end up in life; it is also the necessary means to get there too!
Don’t let your mouth bring you into disfavor, and don’t plead before the messenger that it was an error, - but be in awe of God…
So how do we attain such a level? It is to this that the next chapters are devoted.
The Eighth step: Sin Sickness
Kohelet begins to use a phrase he has not used before. He uses it three times over one and a half chapters. That phrase is ‘sin-sickness’. It is a radical idea: that the negative drives affect a person like an illness, taking over the mind, developing habits that are destructive to others and destructive to help. Kohelet lists three specific manifestations of this illness. The first is when the pursuit of wealth starts to take over and leads to endless accumulation as an ends in itself. The second is the pursuit of honour, which Kohelet terms ‘working for the wind’. He pauses momentarily to remind readers of the difference between such pursuits where no amount of goods or pleasures can satisfy the person, with one who learns to appreciate everything they have. Then he moves to the third way in which negative drives become a self-destructive illness. This one is something Solomon himself had experienced only too acutely: that a person can become so taken over by their drives, that they become as if taken over by a total stranger.
God sometimes grants a man riches, property, and wealth, so that he does not want for anything his appetite may crave, but God does not permit him to enjoy it; instead, a stranger will enjoy it. That is futility and a grievous ill.
The former self has died the most tragic death of all. They have been taken over by a new destructive self, and the old self ‘will not even be buried’.
The meditation has engendered what is elsewhere referred to as a ‘fear of sin’. As Kohelet himself had already experienced, once the human mind has fallen into the clutches of dark thoughts, we start to confuse right from wrong, moralise our own desires as some kind of ‘good’ and ‘right’, and look for all that is bad in people and ways that are good. Our guilt at our own moral failings can easily be twisted into justification of ourselves. Our shame in the face of others who do better than us can lead to a jealous hatred that is masked by a moralising voice looking for any faults in them.
It leads immediately to the urgency of the question as to how one can ensure that they follow the right path, and avoid at all costs the lure of the negative drives?
Who can possibly know what is best for a man to do in life—the few days of his fleeting life? For who can tell him what the future holds for him under the sun?
The simple answer ‘God can!’ does not help. Unless one can find the way to hear the voice of God deep within. Kohelet has already warned against assuming that one can. But now, armed with a fear of just how powerful and dangerous sin is, now we are ready to turn our minds and attention to some of the most profound questions that indeed have the power to awaken our minds to hear with clarity the inner voice of truth.
The Ninth Step: Meditating Upon Death
The seventh chapter of Kohelet uses the word ‘good’ more than any other section does. This is where we learn to find what is truly good. And we do so by focusing on death. Any project can only start out with a clear sense of what ought to have been achieved by the end. Life itself can surely be no different!
The day of death is better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting; for that is the end of every man, and a living one should take it to heart.
In many ways the idea seems obvious. But it brings back an obvious question. After all Kohelet began because Solomon had found that his life’s quest, to bring the world to perfection and to rid it of evil, had collapsed entirely. It seemed to him that ‘that which is ruined cannot be fixed’ and that lead him to question the point of life itself. Now he has come full circle, and must face this question head on.
Consider God’s doing! Who can fix what He has ruined?
His answer is so subtle that it is easy to misunderstand:
Don’t be a tzadik (one who does good) excessively, and don’t act excessively wise, or you may be destroy yourself.
Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool, why should you die without having reached your completion?
How could one possibly be ‘too much of a tzadik’? in fact there are numerous ways. They range from being overly (and unnecessarily) strict beyond one’s ability to function healthily, to being overly humble when moral courage is demanded, to overrating one’s own level, to feeling crippling shame and guilt following a misdeed.
Solomon himself had been ‘excessively righteous’, in second guessing God, assuming that history demanded from him something that god Himself had not directly asked for. The application of subjective moral reasoning to question God is the ultimate projection of one’s own thoughts and feelings onto God as if our feelings define moral right and wrong. It takes immense humility to recognise that we need to bring our own sense of righteousness into check, as much as we do our negative drives.
So Kohelet realises that our life is not futile, if we live every day clinging onto the good, whilst holding down the bad. It is a daily battle. By the end of our lives we may not have brought Messianic perfection to the world. But if we focus each day on winning the inner struggle, then our lives indeed will have been worth living.
In a sense Kohelet has attained the full power of wisdom. He is close to becoming fully free from the inner darkness that had him in its grip. but this is not the first time he has had wisdom. Before he fell, he had become the wisest of all men. Wisdom, it seems, was not sufficient to prevent him from making a near-fatal mistake. Now he comes to diagnose the problem – the struggle that a tzadik might face, having attained full wisdom.
The Tenth Step: Recognizing the Limits of Wisdom
All of this I tried through wisdom. I said “I will attain wisdom!” but she is too far from me!
On the one hand, this may refer to his quest to understand all of God’s wisdom – his Torah – and the recognition that there are some laws that are beyond human grasp. It is not that a little more wisdom might help us to understand them; it is that all of Torahh comes from a place that is beyond where human wisdom can reach. That is a humbling discovery indeed.
But there is another aspect to kohelet’s words. The problem was not so much the attaining of wisdom, but the lack of female partner for that wisdom: ‘She is too far from me!’. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ in Biblical and Rabbinic works is understood to refer to the development of vision and potential on the one hand (male), and the translation of that vision into actuality on the other (female). Wisdom, in that sense is male. But long before Solomon’s fall, he had attained a beautiful vision of wat a perfect, Godly world could be. He had built a house of God, to show humanity in microcosm what such a world might be like. His failure had come when he attempted to perfect every aspect of himself, including the instincts and urges that lurk within the ‘heart of man’. It had also come when he had sought to take the nations of the world and translate that vision through the distinct cultures and imperfections of humanity. His thousand wives had not been the ‘female’ counterparts to his vision that he had hoped for. His belief that his ‘wisdom’ could marry the pagan nations and that those cultures would be overwhelmed by the vision and turn it into actuality had been a fatal error.
In an easily misunderstood passage, kohelet expresses the pain of the failure of the thousand wives he had sought as counterparts to his wisdom:
I found more bitter than death the woman who ensnares… here is what my soul was looking for but did not find. One male amongst a thousand I did find, but one female amongst all these I did not find
Now that he has returned to ‘wisdom’ in his vision, he must reassess the search for a ‘female’ counterpart to that wisdom.
The Twelfth Step: the Search for Wisdom’s Partner
Kohelet’s first decision is that he must find the ‘female’ counterpart to his ‘male’ vision within himself. For the first time in the work he refers to ‘Kohelet’ as a female. ‘She – Kohelet – said.’ And Kohelet as a female begins to provide an alternative vision: ‘one added to one can produce an accounting.’ There is no need to share a vision with the thousands of the world out there. One partner; one correct understanding as to how to translate the ‘wisdom’ into reality will provide something greater than one or one. It will provide the incalculable ‘accounting’ he had been seeking. a perfect vision of history is simply to grandiose to force upon the world.
Kohelet’s male voice had reached the point of realizing that he could not afford to be ‘too righteous’ or ‘too wise’. His newfound female voice told him to focus on each individual moment, each individual decision, and that somehow these would accumulate to ‘an accounting’.
The question is how to marry the ‘wisdom’ of the messaianic dream, with the ‘true female’ that insists on living each moment to perfection and not worrying about its historical impact.
The marriage of these two ideas is precisely where Kohelet turns to next.
The Thirteenth Step: Accepting That Until We Are Ready The World Will Not Be Rectified
Kohelet’s next step is to recognize that creation in its current form is ‘a compromised matter’ (‘pesher davar’) that cannot be fully understood by us. The compromise is in a world that is not ready for ‘strict justice’ is a world that demands God’s mercy. But the price for that mercy is that wrongdoing is tolerated. We simply cannot ask god to eradicate evil, if evil is deeply intertwined with the core of our own being.
That insight is a critical step to understanding why it is that we cannot force history to its end. If Messianism means to try just that, then the catastrophic failure of Solomon’s own attempt forms an ultimate repudiation. We can wait to history’s redemption, but we cannot force it. When Kohelet earlier bemoaned the seemingly unrectifiable state of the world, and the fact that it always returns to a balance of good and evil, those reflections were correct, but that balance will not be forever. It is just that we must work on ourselves, individually and collectively to bring ourselves step by step to sufficient closeness to God, that God can enter the world. We must loosen the tie of evil sufficiently from the core of our being, that God’s justice can destroy evil without destroying us. In the meantime, it seems that we are forced to be patient and accept God’s directing of things, whilst focusing our efforts at maximizing the good we can do in each moment and opportunity available to us.
As for me, I will keep the word of the King… don’t let confusion enter, just follow His guidance, and always avoid anything evil. Just fulfil His desire…
- October 8th 2020