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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