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.” – Hamlet The Greeks, Qohelet and the Importance of Beginning Again Last week we returned to two beginnings, Parashat Bereishit and Homer. We mentioned in class that some attribute the beginning of Western civilization to Homer’s great epics. The Hebrew Bible was no less a starting point of a new way of looking at the world. During the course of the year, I’d like to compare the literature we’re studying to the Torah, in order to gain a deeper appreciation of what we Jews contributed to the world and the role that our religion wants us to play in it. Because we just wrapped up the chagim and ended them by reading the famous work Ecclesiastes, I’d like to start by talking about that work, because it seems, on the surface, very Greek. It takes a fatalistic view of the world, insisting that all of nature is an endless cycle of the same events, and concludes in what could even be called a tragic mode, proclaiming “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2). The Greeks too saw man as an inexorable part of the natural world, bound to Fate, moira, unable to break free of the bonds of nature, except in Death, but even in Death, disintegrating and becoming part of the elements themselves. The Greek philosophers and the Romans who followed them advised Stoic reconciliation to Fate, since one could not overcome it, and/or an Epicurean embrace of aesthetic pleasure as a temporary reprieve from the knowledge of impending decay. Here is Qohelet, sounding very Hellenic: One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abideth for ever. And the sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it rises again. The wind goes to the south, and veers to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; to the place where the rivers flow, thither they return. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. That which has been, is that which shall be;
and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is nothing new under the sun. (1:4-‐9) Oy. Such depression. Of course we know that one major difference between the wisdom of Qohelet and the wisdom of the Greek philosophers is that Qohelet rejects hedonism, finding in it the same futility that he sees in being part of the natural order of life. It seems strange to end the cycle of the Yamim Noraim in such a pessimistic place, though we do move straight from the reading of Ecclesiastes on Shabbat of Chol Ha-‐ moed Sukkot to the holiday of Simchat Torah. This calendric arrangement makes it easy for us to understand the attitude the Hebrew Bible wants us to have towards life. Bible critics like to assign the last few verses of Qohelet to a different author from the rest of the work, but doing so entirely misses the point of Ecclesiastes, because the bottom line is that no book of the Torah would end in a fatalistic or pessimistic place. Though Qohelet seems “aweary of this great world” (as Portia says in The Merchant of Venice), the Torah rejects that stance as an enduring one. In the quotation above, Qohelet writes: All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; to the place where the rivers flow, thither they return. Harold Fisch comments, “It is not just that the rivers run into the sea and the sea is not full, but that such thoughts run back into themselves and never find a liberating outlet. The thinking itself is trapped, enclosed. When that which has been is that which shall be, the mind itself becomes oppressed with the monotony of its own circular movement. . . . In a word Qohelet finds himself in a condition of spiritual claustrophobia” (167). The Greeks understood the inherent contradiction between man’s being a part of Nature and being able to observe and stand above it, but they never moved passed this ironic stance. Here is Fisch again: The ironist beholds his own comic fall as he slips in the mud and he preserves the delicious contradictions involved; he is both the god who sees and stands superior to what he sees and the mere shred of protoplasm overcome by the simple laws of gravity. There is no resolution or synthesis. Oedipus is both the wisest and most foolish of mortals: though he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the chorus rightly terms him a fool. In this he represents
Most important for this discussion is an additional point Professor Fisch makes, which is that the Greeks could not escape from the contradictions inherent in man’s existence because they failed to imagine a dialogue between man and God. “Man, the world, and God remain separate in their isolation from one another” (Ibid.). In Judaism, however, they do not.
the absolute form of irony. His only way out is self-‐mutilation and, ultimately, death. (170)
“”בּראשִׁית, בָּרא אֱֹלהִים, אֵת השּׁמי ִם, ואֵת הָאָרץ ֶ ְ ַ ָ ַ ָ ְֵ
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). No sooner do we finish reading Ecclesiastes than we are thrust into a celebration of the cycle of the weekly Torah readings. And how do we celebrate that cycle? By finishing the Torah and immediately beginning it again. Of course, the Torah’s beginning is the very beginning (a very good place to start): Genesis, which tells the story of the creation of the universe, of the earth and of all of the world’s natural wonders. It is in Genesis that we learn that though we have been fashioned like clay by God the Potter, a notion we just finished enthusiastically singing about on Yom Kippur, we are not simply dust of the earth made into a somewhat more complicated vessel than, say, an amoeba or even a gorilla. For as soon as God makes man, He calls him at once into a fellowship and then a covenant with him, “raising him above the process and order of nature” (170). It is worth noting, as Fisch does, that Ecclesiastes uses the term adam more than 50 times, almost more than any other book of the Torah (172), a literary hint that while the book may dabble in fatalism, it ultimately swings back into the covenantal relationship God formed with man in Sefer Bereishit. Qohelet makes additional and important literary allusions to Bereishit as well as to other books of the Torah, allusions that are consistent with the message woven into the text of the Hebrew Bible. In 8:17, Qohelet states he has seen “all the work of God” (kol-‐ma’aseh ha’elohim). In Psalms this phrase is a formula for God’s creative activities, because it makes us think of Genesis 1, which is full of the verb “to make” (va-‐yaas). The first chapter of Genesis is all about God’s going about the creative process that results in the making of all the different parts of the natural world that Qohelet then so carefully observes. In fact, in contrast to his Greek counterparts, Qohelet is as sure as any biblical author of God’s being and power, of the fact indeed of his government of the universe” (164). Though Qohelet may be frustrated by the essential mysteriousness of God (Ibid.), his literary allusions reveal his connection to the books of the Bible and to their
(1:31) “”וירא אלהים את כּל אשׁר עשׂה והנה טוב מאד Good is an important word in the Torah, especially in Bereishit where we learn, as the above verse tells us, that God saw all that he had made and found it good [tob]. Philosophers debate the meaning of the true, the good, and the beautiful, but the Torah makes it pretty clear from a linguistic angle what it finds good: The word good connects God with creation and man with God as a covenantal partner. What God wants, what He will find good, is a “humble ‘walking,’ an intimacy of unbroken dialogue” (163). Since this course is about words and their power, it would be great to end on the notion that what God wants from us is unbroken dialogue, but Micah’s words seem to include much more. Micah states that God wants us to pursue justice and hesed. Professor Fisch’s attractive idea of man’s walking closely with God in dialogue is partly predicated on his translation of hesed as true loyalty: the intimate relationship between God and man is created by the troth they’ve pledged to each other in a sacred covenant. A translation of hesed as lovingkindness, a popular interpretation of the word, would change a reading of the passage. Another translation, of hesed as goodness, might also alter what Fisch understands the passage to mean. And Fisch’s translation of tzedek is debatable as well; tzedek can mean justice, sure, but it can also mean charity. How are we supposed to define what it means to have a relationship with God if we can’t define the terms of that relationship? Let’s turn to a literary analysis of genre for an answer: Qohelet falls under the category of Wisdom Literature, and as we noted the Greek and Roman wise men, its philosophers, ended their mental reveries by saying the best way to tolerate the world was to prepare to meet death with dignity and/or
redeem life by enjoying some keen aesthetic moments. Before Qohelet ends his book with a reminder that the covenantal relationship – the fear of God and the keeping of His commandments are what enable man to redeem life from an otherwise unbearable nihilism – Eccelsiastes writes, “The making of books is without limit. And much study is a wearing of the flesh” (12:13-‐14). The wise man says, “Give up books! Give up study!” The notion seems inexplicable coming from the lips of a philosopher, until we remember that Qohelet is not a philosopher, though he does make some philosophical statements. Qohelet is a Biblical author and as such embraces the Biblical attitudes about God and the covenant. In the same way, Sefer Bereishit, which can be placed in the genre of cosmology myth, breaks the bounds of that genre when it is compared with the pagan myths. Pagans do not see their gods as being beyond Nature and so cannot imagine, as the Torah does, a God who is outside the natural world and who then grants His creation, man, the freedom to live outside that natural world as well, so that they can have a relationship with each other and with the world that is good. The introspection of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur may lead one to the melancholy and futility of Ecclesiastes, and so on Shabbat Chol Ha-‐moed Sukkot we are allowed to air our philosophical angst. But those nihilistic depths are not the proper place for a Jew, and we quickly move out of the mode of futility when we are reminded in Bereishit that God spoke the world into existence. Early on in our morning prayers we are reminded appropriately enough of how words began the world as well as the process of our dialogue with God,
”ברוך שׁאמר והיה העולם
“Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into being.” As we near the end of the prayers, though, we should have embraced our dignified role in being the one creature on earth who has the power that God has, to use words, and so we lovingly say,
“”אֲדֹנָי, שׂפָתַ י תִּ פתָּ ח וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּ הלָּתֶ ָך ִ ְ ְ
“O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall tell Thy praise.” Before the holiest prayer of each day, we remind ourselves of the power God gave us and of our wish to use that power to dialogue with Him in only positive ways.
Now prayer seems like a logical and likely way one can have an unbroken dialogue with God, but it still doesn’t help us in our definition of the word, hesed. And Micah also said we were supposed to pursue tzedek, justice or charity. What happens to the covenant if we’re only standing around praying all day? In the above verse, which is taken from Psalm 51, is a leitmotif word we’ve been tracking through various books of the Torah: tell – ya-‐gid. God created the world with words, and in doing so showed us that not only does He want a conversation with us, but that He wants mankind to converse and then create in particular ways as well. When we are not engaged in our prayers, in our literal dialogue with God, we are in the realm of worldly affairs, but we are constantly building with words there as well, with the relationships and interactions we have, with the things we say and write and text and tweet and post on a non-‐stop basis throughout the day. And each of the statements we make should tell the world of God’s greatness, that is, they should be an actualization of what we know God wants with us when we are walking with Him and talking to Him and He is telling us what His vision for the world is. And that vision is one that has man exhibiting justice, charity, and lovingkindness, because we know those things to be important throughout the works of Tanakh, and any act which achieves those aims is one that is a telling, a revealing of the covenant of true loyalty that God has with us. Because our covenant demands that just as God created the world and saw that it was good, we must create a world that God might see and say of it “It is good.” In short, all the possible meanings of tzedek and hesed are implied when Micah makes his affirmation. When we engage in close readings of literature, we always show how literary techniques reveal the thesis of any work. In discussing Qohelet, Genesis and Micah, we’ve been focused on diction and on the use of multiply denotative words, such as tzedek and hesed, that ultimately reveal the main idea of the work in which they appear: The aim of the Torah is always to teach us the responsibilities of the covenant. Just as the Torah is not a history book, as my Chumash teacher always liked to say, it is also not a traditional work of literature, though it may employ beautiful language, use poetic words, and play with genre. But it is not concerned about the boundaries of those genres, as we saw it explode them with Qohelet and Genesis. Rather it is concerned with doing what it does best: teaching us the way to live. After all, we do not call Tanakh “myth,” or “epic,” or work of “Wisdom Literature.” We call it Torah, “the teaching.” Our course will immerse us in the works of the Greeks and others, but the Torah stands separate from the Western canon in deep and significant ways, giving us the room to express all of our emotions, even painful and depressing ones, but then
goading us into seeing the view it wants us to have of the world. And that view is, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks constantly says, that we are God’s partners in the world, that we have a responsibility not to fall prey to despair but instead to recognize that our unbroken dialogue with God, our covenant, means that we not only to sing to Him, but that we busy our hands with creating a world that is worthy of His presence. Work Cited: Fisch, Harold. Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Print.
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