Ecclesiastes Is an Affirmation of Life and the Power of Wisdom, Not an Expression of Despair

Oct. 10 2017

The book of Ecclesiastes—traditionally read in many Jewish congregations on the holiday of Sukkot—purports to be the reflections on life of an aging king, identified as “Kohelet son of David” and traditionally believed to be King Solomon. While the book is often understood by modern readers as being at odds with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, sharing more in common with ancient Greek or pagan thought than with Judaism, Ethan Dor-Shav argues that it in fact rejects pagan attitudes and presents a uniquely Jewish view of life (2004).

Whereas all the great emperors and kings of old strove to achieve eternal life by erecting grand monuments to themselves, Kohelet understands that such attempts are illusory. He is therefore forced to pose the elementary question: if I die anyway, why does anything matter? His first word, however, is not his last. For there are numerous passages in Ecclesiastes that move in the opposite direction. They affirm, for example, the positive value of a joyful life. The same Kohelet who appears to say so often that “all is vanity” [or, in more modern translations, “futility”], also exclaims that “there is nothing better than man rejoicing,” and that “nothing is better for man under the sun than to eat, drink, and be joyful.” . . . Similar verses can also be found that affirm the importance of action in this world, as well as the acquisition of wisdom—verses that do not square well with the belief that all is vanity. . . .

Ultimately, if there is an underlying message in the book of Ecclesiastes, it is this: that only in understanding the transience of life do we attain the beginning of wisdom; and, in turn, only through the wisdom derived from our experience of life can we in some way take part in that which is eternal. The importance of wisdom is mentioned repeatedly in Ecclesiastes. . . . Kohelet realizes that true wisdom is the one thing that is not dependent on transient circumstances. Yet all of the transient circumstances in this world serve as the means of acquiring it. . . .

Neither Solomon’s riches, nor his power, nor even his monumental temple in Jerusalem survived under the sun. What has indeed lasted, however, is the legacy of his wisdom, embodied in the book of Ecclesiastes. This belief in knowledge as the highest form of spirituality has served as the Jewish torch throughout the ages. And no small measure of that light is reflected in the understanding that only ideas can defy time, transforming the world.

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More about: Ecclesiastes, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Religion & Holidays


When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin