“For what is the advantage of the wise over the fool? What [less] has the poor man who knows how to go along with the living (Ecclesiastes 6:8)?” I find myself torn by the contradictions of my reactions to this verse. On the one hand, I agree that ultimately yes, whether you live wisely or foolishly, the result of mortality is that we all end up the same. But on the other, I imagine that anyone reasonable would agree that it’s more advantageous to be wise than to be a fool. There are tremendous advantages to wisdom, both when it comes to intellectual and practical knowledge. Wisdom enables us to make our way through the world mindfully, with options, consideration, and awareness, which hopefully we tap into and utilize to our respective advantages. Wisdom, of course, can come in many different forms, and many of us have it in different ways than others around us. We need all of the different kinds of wisdom (multiple intelligences shoutout!) to make the world work, so even if someone seems foolish on the surface, dig a little deeper – maybe it’s just a more elusive form of wisdom.
“Be not rash with your mouth, and let your heart not be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you are on the earth; therefore, let your words be few (Ecclesiastes 5:1).” I often fall into the trap of talking too much, or for a beat longer than necessary. While usually it doesn’t necessarily lead to trouble, it definitely isn’t the best quality, and I am working to be more mindful of the words that I speak, premeditating them rather than reflecting back afterwards and wondering if they were correct.
“And I praise the dead who have already died, more than the living who are still alive (Ecclesiastes 4:2).” It’s definitely easier to honor the dead than it is the living a lot of the time, because simply by virtue of no longer being with us, we’re able to look back on them as the best versions of themselves, rather than having to confront their flaws or inadequacies like we do with the people we actively engage with every day. When someone dies, they become frozen in time. We can only imagine how they would react to our changing circumstances, so in some ways they become whatever we want to be – our inner champions, challengers, supporters, and in different times the voices in our minds, talking to us throughout our lives.
“Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).” This verse opens a particularly iconic chapter, which contains numerous examples of the powerful idea of everything, good and bad, having a role in the unfolding of our lives, and of the world. It’s comforting to realize that everything truly does have its season, so even when things are hard, and today I had a few sadnesses and disappointments, ultimately it comes back to the idea of this being the reality for now, and not for always. It’s so easy to get caught up in the now, either positive or negative, and to think that today is always. But everything has its time and place in our lives, and I want to work on being more accepting of that cyclical reality as I continue to grow into the person I want to be.
This chapter begins with verse upon verse about the accumulation of wealth, of property and possessions and the effort that the narrator put into acquiring all of the above. He indulges in all that he wants. “And [of] all that my eyes desired I did not deprive them; I did not deprive my heart of any joy, but my heart rejoiced with all my toil, and this was my portion from all my toil (Ecclesiastes 2:10).” Not to discount the verses that come next, which talk about how all of this is futile, I actually really relate to this concept. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t just like my job, I actively love it, am sometimes fully obsessed with it, and have no semblance of work/life balance because I have such a passion for what I do that there’s constant overlap between my ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ selves. I see no issue with this – yes, it’s sometimes exhausting, but I’d much rather love and enjoy my day to day and find fulfillment in it rather than be unsatisfied with how I spend the majority of my time. My work makes me happy, and that’s what I’m reading into this verse. I recognize that this isn’t always the case and that I’m incredibly lucky, but for now I’ll embrace it!
The first verse gives us an introduction into who the writer of this book is – Kohelet, son of David. Kohelet is traditionally believed to be synonymous with King Solomon, who is credited as the author of the book, though there are scholars who dispute this. Regardless, this is said to be a book of wisdom, and he is known for being the wise king, so perhaps it’s in his spirit, if nothing else. For this first chapter, the piece of wisdom that appeals to me the most is one of the most famous. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).” It’s ironic, of course, because clearly whatever commentary I offer on this verse will not be new. It’s been written about for centuries, and I can wholeheartedly say that I have no unique insights. Sometimes it’s depressing to think that every good, even innovative, idea has already been had, but there’s also a beauty to approaching that same idea from a different perspective. What if we looked at things by saying that we have the honor and opportunity to build on the work of previous generations, bringing new perspectives and experiences to timeless realities and concepts? I think it would make the work of today seem less futile and more like another layer on the ongoing building of the history of humanity.
“Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old (Lamentations 5:21).” I chose this verse, the second to last one in in the book of Lamentations, first because it’s one that I recognized right away from years and years of Shabbat services. It’s usually sung pretty robustly, and throughout this project, I’ve been so happy to see pieces of text that I’m familiar with in their original contexts. I really love the idea of restoration and renewal. The holiday of Tu B’shvat is coming up, and even just today, I was able to walk to work for the first time in weeks because the weather is clearing up. Of course it’s only January and there’s plenty of winter left to go, but I can see that the earth and the world is starting to renew itself, going through the cycle of healing and warming that makes it whole once again. We all need that regular renewal, which is why I love cycles so much – of the calendar, the moon, our lives. Bringing us back to place we were in before, but as different, newly evolved people, allows us to keep growing, which is the most important thing as we move through our lives.
A positive note to end a sad book on! But with that, Eichah/Lamentations is done, and tomorrow starts yet another new book. 807 chapters down, 122 to go!
“The iniquity of my people is greater than the sin of Sodom, which was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands fell on her (Lamentations 4:6).” Being that Sodom – and Gomorrah – literally became synonymous for sin throughout the ages, it’s pretty bad that this verse says that the people were somehow even worse than the people of these horrific cities. It’s been a while since the story of Sodom and Gomorrah came up, literally more than two years ago in this project, but I do recall that the tale included gang rape, so for whatever the people are doing now to be worse is truly awful. How can the people be forgiven for whatever their sins have been? Does God really have an infinite capacity for forgiveness? Because I’m quite sure that I don’t know any human beings who do. We all have limits, and things that are beyond the pale for us. I sometimes wish I was a more forgiving person, but I also think there’s something to be said for being guarded and protective of oneself. It’s a fine line when it comes to figuring out that balance, and it’s a deeply personal one for all of us to figure out.
“I have become the laughing stock of all my people, their song [of derision] all day long (Lamentations 3:14).” My job is all about working with teenagers, and in any stage of life but particularly then, becoming the subject of unwanted laughter and ridicule is just as bad as any of the physical humiliations listed in this book. Teens can be very self conscious, and it’s natural for them to want to fit in and be accepted. I feel deeply for any kids who don’t get to experience that acceptance that they strive for from at least some subset of their social circles. There’s a validation that comes from acceptance and being included, let alone welcomed. Words can be truly painful, and actions all the more so, so I completely understand the pain that could be behind a verse like this.
“The Lord has become like an enemy; He has destroyed Israel; He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds, and He increased the daughter in Judah, pain and wailing (Lamentations 2:5).” What interested me about this verse is that it emphasizes a relationship that changes over time. At one point God is a protector and parent figure, but now that relationship changes into one of enmity. I think when a relationship with someone (or something) shifts, and a relationship that someone could previously count on is now in a different category, it’s even worse than if you start out as enemies. The betrayal is twofold at that point, and hurts all the more.