What “Hamlet” and Ecclesiastes Have in Common

Sept. 27 2021

Read in many synagogues this past Shabbat, the book of Ecclesiastes consists of the reflections on life and its vicissitudes of “Kohelet the son of David”—identified traditionally as King Solomon. To Noah Millman, Kohelet’s musings on the futility of human endeavors and the ironies and absurdities of earthly existence resemble nothing so much as the soliloquies delivered by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Kohelet, Millman writes may seem like a philosopher, but in fact that’s not quite so:

Ecclesiastes . . . is a record of Kohelet’s philosophical investigations in dialogue with himself. But on closer inspection, the book is not so much a work of philosophy as a first-person account of the failure of philosophy. Kohelet is an individual striving to make some sense out of his life, only to discover that he cannot do this by philosophical means.

Millman points to numerous similarities between the play and the biblical work, such as Kohelet’s “What profit hath a man of all his labor?” and Hamlet’s “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” But, with help of the great medieval rabbinic commentary of Rashi, Millman identifies a deeper parallel. Hamlet seeks to take revenge on his uncle for killing his father, usurping the throne, and marrying his mother. And Solomon?

Ecclesiastes appears to offer no similar family backstory for making sense of Kohelet’s misery, . . . but if we take the traditional notion that Kohelet is Solomon seriously, comparisons suddenly spring forth. Solomon, after all, was witness to an almost absurdly on-point Oedipal struggle within his own family when his half-brother, Absalom, revolted against their common father, David, and slept with David’s concubines as a way of fortifying his claim to the throne. David’s deathbed advice to Solomon was to kill the man responsible for Absalom’s death—his general, Joab. Solomon also had to commit fratricide to consolidate his power, killing Adonijah, his half-brother, who had himself crowned king first. Solomon’s struggle for the throne was fully as bloody and incestuous as the one in Elsinore, but he played the royal part that Hamlet labors to avoid.

A suggestion of Rashi provides an even more valuable interpretive lens onto the personal drama behind Kohelet’s melancholy. His commentary suggests that King Solomon foresaw the division of the kingdom under his son Rehoboam and that this was the source of Kohelet’s despair. It’s a notion that can be used to bring many of the book’s apparent contradictions into sudden focus. Why, for example, is Kohelet so persistently concerned with the possibility that someone unworthy will enjoy his wealth? With the possibility that his heirs will be fools?

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Ecclesiastes, Hebrew Bible, King Solomon, Rashi, William Shakespeare

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy