INSIGHT

5768 - #03

FRAME OF REFERENCE

    There is a minhag, a custom, to read Megillat Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, publicly, in the synagogue, on Chol HaMoed Succot, the Intermediary Shabbat of Succot. In that the holiday of Succot is the most joyous of holidays, it is strange that this seemingly morose work is read at this time. One answer, that is presented to explain this apparent paradox, is that this reading will ensure that the activities of joy undertaken in celebration of holiday will not divert into frivolity. With unmitigated joy there is always the possibility of the fun leading away from Torah even into licentiousness. The words of Kohelet can an offer a proper dose of sobriety to ensure that this does not occur.

            The difficulty with this answer, though, is that it still does not explain how Kohelet connects with the theme of Succot, if it does. In fact, this explanation, in a certain way, challenges this very theme. If Succot is to be a time of great celebration, yet we must be wary of great celebration because it can lead to improper behaviour, why would the Torah command a time of great celebration in the first place? Perhaps, it can be argued, the reading of Kohelet is solely intended to keep the celebration straight and proper, but the actual words seem to be morose in contradiction of the very theme of the day? Is the only way to deal with the problems of simcha, joy, by diverting us away from this very theme?  Kohelet does not seem to steer the simcha, joy, in the proper direction but rather seems to dampen the celebration. As such, the whole question of the purpose of celebrating can be challenged. The answer may be that Kohelet is not really a morose text but rather an instructional text on exactly how to celebrate properly. For the one celebrating improperly, the work indeed may seem to be morose but that is not really Kohelet’s intent. There are two types of joy, improper joy and proper joy. Succot is about proper joy and Kohelet may be the text that defines this distinction between variant types of joy. More significantly, though, it may also be the very text that gives the necessary direction as how to achieve proper joy, part of the very essence of Succot.

             T.B. Shabbat 30b informs us that Sages wished to hide the book of Kohelet for it offered many contradictions, thus lent itself to misinterpretation. The gemara presents the very topic of joy as the example of apparent contradictions. Verses praise simcha and verses critique simcha.1 The gemara explains that the distinction in attitude was actually tied to the nature of the simcha. It was joy tied to mitzvot that was deserving praise and it was joy not tied to mitzvot that was deserving of criticism. The answer actually seems to be pretty straightforward. The question even emerges: why would this confuse the reader, leading the Sages to consider hiding this work? Of course not every form of joy is good or bad; defining the moral nature of a joy clearly depends on the circumstances. The fact is, though, that Kohelet itself does not make that distinction. It uses the generic term, joy. Why did Kohelet not say that, at times, joy, if approached correctly can be good, yet, at other times, if approached incorrectly, it can be negative? How often do we ask this question? Why does the Written Torah2 not just say what it means; why does it demand the explanation of the Oral Torah? In this case, the answer may lie in the fact that Kohelet is not just describing two types of joy but two differing foundations of joy. Joy is, indeed, contradictory and confusing. The answer of the gemara is not just a presentation of differing joys; it represents differing perspectives to the confusion of joy.

             The gemara does not present its answer of two different types of joy as an explanation for why the Sages did not hide the book of Kohelet even though it presented contradictory ideas. The gemara explains that the Sages decided not to hide Kohelet because, even though it was full with contradiction, it still demanded to be available to be potentially read by all for it began with words of Torah and ended with words of Torah.3 What does this mean? How does this answer justify the existence of the contradictions within the verses of this work? The gemara may be informing us that the opening and closing verses present the context for reading and understanding the entire work. If one reads Kohelet out of context, there is indeed the possibility for mis-understanding. This was the concern. Confronting the confusion of joy could yield negative results. Yet, as part of Torah, confronting the confusion of joy may be necessary in reaching for Torah heights. That one must read the contradictory verses on joy within the context of Torah is part of the message of the opening and closing verses. One may still ignore the message but the Sages are satisfied that the message is given. As such, one who heeds this message may gain from the lessons within the verses of this work.

             Joy, as with perhaps all of life, is filled with contradiction. At times, it can be positive but at times it can also be the foreteller of disaster. The difference may not lie in the actual joy but in how we approach the joy. This is often true within life. The difference does not lie in the actual case but, rather, in how we approach the case. It is our frame of reference that often defines life, including the contradictory nature of life.

             Oftentimes, people attempt to live by avoiding the complexity. Complexity is often tied to confusion and confusion is often tied to unhappiness. Kohelet broaches the confusion; the initial result is that it is deemed to be morose. It is not confusion that yields this moroseness but rather the frame of reference that attempts to avoid the challenge of the complexity that God has placed before us that yields the moroseness. The call of Kohelet is, in a certain way, to embrace the complexity and confusion for this is the very task that God has placed before the human being. It is traveling this path of Torah that is the true inner joy of life. This is the essence of the joy of Succot, of the joy of the mitzvah, of the joy of Torah. We grow in the confrontation with life. This is our very task. This is the lesson of Kohelet. This must be our frame of reference in every encounter we have with life. This is also the underlying message of the joy of Succot when we celebrate the harvest, the positive result of our difficult efforts, which God has given us – both the positive results and the difficult efforts.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 See Kohelet  2:2; 7:3; 8:15.

2 This term, in this case, referring to the Tanach, the entire Written Bible.

3 This is specifically referring to Kohelet 1:3 and 12:13.

Nishma, 2007


 


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2006 NISHMA