Shabbat Sukkot | 5768
A Time for Everything … Including Contradictions
On Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot, we read the megilla of Kohelet, which Chazal unanimously attribute to Shlomo Hamelech. The work, which is philosophical in nature, has certain unique characteristics. One of them, the fact that Kohelet is overall pessimistic about life, helped one opinion in Chazal to date it. R. Yonatan (Kohelet Rabba 1) says that Shlomo wrote Shir Hashirim, which is a metaphorical love song, when he was young; he wrote Mishlei, which contains intellectual parables, in his mature years; he wrote Kohelet, which negates the pursuits of man, in his old age. According to the Magen Avraham (490:8), this explains the fact that it is read during Sukkot. At that time, when there is so much rejoicing, it is necessary to put checks on the happiness with such statements as “joy, what does it do?” (Kohelet 2:2).
However, there are other unique qualities of Kohelet. One, which “got it in trouble,” is the several apparent open contradictions within the work and between it and basic tenets of Judaism. In fact, the gemara (Shabbat 30b) relates that there had been a motion among the Rabbis to ban Kohelet because of the contradictions within it. It survived because of the important messages it contains, and the Rabbis were able to reconcile the contradictions. The two the gemara mentions are whether anger is better than laughter and whether joy is positive or not. The gemara answers that anger is better than laughter when Hashem acts harshly in this world in order to reward the righteous in the World to Come, whereas laughter with the righteous in the World to Come is good. Regarding joy, it says that joy related to mitzvot is praiseworthy.
Ibn Ezra discusses more apparent contradictions in Kohelet and offers different types of distinctions. The question is why there are so many apparent contradictions in the first place. If it is just hard to write deeply without appearing to contradict oneself, why do a disproportionate number of examples appear specifically here?
Perhaps the chronological thesis of R. Yonatan (above) answers the question. When one is young, he thinks emotionally. When he matures, he thinks intellectually, but he still sees things in terms of clear truths upon which to act. After one has completed much of his life experiences, the deep thinker will see that no one set of conclusions will explain what is right and what is wrong. So much depends on the circumstances, making the truth seem contradictory. That is part and parcel of Kohelet’s message. Try to do your best but realize that you will not be able to conquer the meaning of life and the exact path to fulfillment and perfection. Therefore, as Kohelet concludes, “At the end of the matter, when all is heard, fear Hashem and follow his instructions, for this is all of man.”
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