I usually don’t look forward to reading Kohelet because of its negative and misogynistic bent. The text opens with “Havel Havelim”, “Vanity of vanities,” “Utter futility…” Why do we even read such a message on Sukkot, a holiday of Thanksgiving and harvest?
Then I remembered the popular peace song from the 60’s– Turn, Turn, Turn— that comes almost verbatim from the third chapter of Kohelet—Sing it with me: To Everything—turn, turn, turn—There is a season—turn, turn, turn—And a time for every purpose, under Heaven.
The message to live in harmony with the cycles of seasons as we follow the Jewish Calendar through the year is a very positive one. In addition, the title of this megillah, Kohelet, means “Gatherer” or “Gatherings” and Kohelet is full of wise adages like, “A good name is better than fragrant oil.” Another is, “It is better to listen to a wise man’s reproof than to the praise of fools,” and also, “Better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit.” How does this useful advice and upbeat theme mesh with the pessimism of “Havel havelim?”
The Jewish approach to an apparent paradox in a text is to look more closely at the text itself. When we do that with Kohelet, a new possibility arises. There are 3 words that are repeated over and over again in Kohelet : Hevel, Shemesh and Adam. Hevel, translated as vanity or futility, also means “breath, vapor or mist.” It indicates something insubstantial, something transient, so the “utter futility” of Kohelet is an allusion to the impermanence of the material world, just like our sukkot.
However, words meaning “breath” in Hebrew are also used to refer to the different levels of soul—nefesh, ruach and neshamah. So Hevel can be a reference to the life force that inspires us, and “utter futility” can be a reminder to pay attention to our breath, to the breath of life through which we were created. Rather than lead us to despair, “Hevel havalim” can inspire us to see everything as infused with the breath of life and of God.
We know that the other two words—Shemesh and Adam—mean “Sun”—S-u-n—and Man or Earth. Listen to some of the other words found in the beginning of Kohelet ; what do they call to mind? Di-ber (Word); Ruach (Wind); Mayim(Water); Shamayim( Heaven); Afar(Dust); Gan(Garden); and Shivii(Seven) which appears near the end. Sound familiar?
These are the same words found in the Creation story in B’reisheit where God SPOKE the world into being; where a WIND from God swept over the water; where HEAVEN and EARTH were finished; where God BREATHED life into DUST and created ADAM; where God put Adam and Eve in the GARDEN; and rested on the SEVENTH day. Also, the word Hevel is referenced SEVEN times in verse 2 of Kohelet and Hevel also is the Hebrew name of Abel, the firstborn of Adam and Eve.
Another way Kohelet is connected stylistically to the Creation narrative is in its use of pairs: God separated the light from the darkness, the water from the dry land, day from night. Kohelet links “a time to be born and a time to die,” “a time to plant and a time to uproot.” Eve bears two children, Cain and Abel; and, of course, the animals went into the Ark “two by two.”
There is another interesting parallel between B’reishit and Kohelet. In Genesis 2:16 we read:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat
This is the proof text for the Noahide laws, the commandments incumbent on all humankind. The Sages read into this verse the prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, murder and robbery. These are called the mitzvoth b’nei Noach—laws incumbent on all the descendents of Noah.
At the end of Kohelet, the author gives us a similar message:
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind.
Thus mitzvoth at the end of Kohelet point us back to the mitzvoth b’nei Noach of B’reishit.
There is more than just a semantic connection between Kohelet and B’reishit. In ancient times, it was the custom to read Kohelet in 4 parts—on the first 2 days of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Since the Torah readings from Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret relate to the set times for the Festivals, reading Kohelet during this period reinforced the message of the cycle of seasons of the Jewish calendar.
Then, on Simchat Torah, we turn from the end of Deuteronomy to the beginning of Genesis—from D’varim (Words) to B’reishit (Creation). Kohelet acts as a bridge text, foreshadowing B’reishit through its imagery, its vocabulary and its message of mitzvoth.
In Pirke Avot we are told about the Torah to “Turn it, turn it for everything is in it.” Next week, as we gather to celebrate Simchat Torah, think about Kohelet and its connection to the beginning of the Torah. As we turn it, turn it and turn ourselves again, beginning a new cycle of time, remember to breathe in our connection to God, as God breathed Creation into being, and to fill our lives with the joy of mitzvoth, the joy of this holiday season and every day of our lives.