Kohelet: All is Impermanent; There is a Time for Everything

For Congregation Ner Shalom, October 5, 2012

It isn’t easy being king. After all, one’s best efforts come to naught; they are mere vanity, like chasing the wind.

So go the words of Kohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem, writer and star of the book called Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which serves as the companion text for the holiday of Sukkot. Our tradition says that Kohelet, the writer and supposed king, was actually King Solomon, but there’s no non-midrashic evidence of that, just as there is, in fact, no extrinsic evidence that King Solomon ever existed. But just going with our stories, King Solomon seems very unlike this Kohelet person. Solomon is kind of solid and wise and unfazed. Whereas Kohelet is at first blush more like Solomon’s father, David: impulsive, full of mood and seemingly young. His words sound like they could be spoken by some undergraduate philosophy major, perhaps wearing a black turtleneck and smoking a cigarette.

Havel havalim, Kohelet says. It is all vanity. Vanity of vanities. He is king and yet he sees that no matter what he builds, no matter what he succeeds at, it doesn’t last. The world goes on, generation upon generation. The streams flow into the oceans and the oceans never fill. The winds blow and then circle around and blow again. What was is what will be. What was done is what will be done, v’eyn kol chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun.
Kohelet represents a kind of world-weariness; a jadedness expressed by the character Prior Walter in “Angels in America” when he says, “It’s something you learn after your second theme party: It’s All Been Done Before.”

Hakol havel. It is all vanity. Wow. How honest. To be a king and see your own insignificance?

That’s got to hurt. The disillusionment in the field of high politics must be immense. And that disillusionment is never copped to, even though it’s not well hidden from us, the king’s subjects, either. Watching the first presidential debate, didn’t we all recognize it? The too-thin veil of principle draped carelessly over the jagged edges of desire, greed and futility? Seeing moral truths get brushed aside as the debate goes to the best jawline and biggest smirk? Watching the candidates, it’s hard to know who is more disillusioned – them or us. Do we even want to be aware of this? As Kohelet says,

Ki b’rov chochmah rav ka’as, v’yosif da’at yosif mach’ov.

The more you know, the more painful it is. Ignorance, even back then, was bliss.
But how do you escape disillusionment? With food, wine, earthly entertainments? Kohelet tried those and they didn’t work. What then? Build? Design? Gather wisdom? Kohelet, ever the life of the party, reminds us that the wise person dies even as surely as the fool.

Disillusionment is everywhere. “Why should I vote? Why should I care,” ask many young people. And many not-young people. Why should I bother to act at all?

Kohelet strikes a chord with all of us; he is not a prophet hurling God’s words at an unhearing public. He speaks for the people. Whoever he actually was, his nom de plume, Kohelet means “one of the kahal” - a member of the congregation, the voice of the community. He speaks in all our names. We all reign as kings of our own lives. And yet all or so many of our efforts to govern are futile.

But maybe bleakness is an incomplete reading of Kohelet. Maybe there’s an element of angst, but also an element of acceptance. Perhaps he is a kind of Buddhist. Our earliest Israelite Buddhist. Hevel havalim – vanity of vanities. Not a lament as much as a mantra: Kohelet’s way of saying what in Sanskrit is called anitcha. Impermanence. All is impermanent. Like a Buddhist he is aware that suffering comes from not accepting the impermanence of all things; that trying to cling to what we’re attached to is r’ut ruach – like grasping at the wind.

Is Kohelet a lesson in disattachment? Disattachment as a way of life scares me even more than disillusionment. How can I embrace disattachment when so much action is needed in this world? There are terrible people doing terrible things. There are good people doing terrible things too! How can I stand idly by when there is so much at stake?

The answer is undoubtedly that this is not an “either/or” question. Kohelet doesn’t say, “do nothing.” He – or she because really who knows? – says, “Look at the big picture also.” Everything is temporary. Our gains are temporary. So are our setbacks. Life unfolds in ways that are bigger than us and that disregard us. “So,” Kohelet seems to say, “let go of the constant need to control it all.” Instead, find the richness in your life, the richness in this very transient moment. Do not let your happiness hinge entirely upon your success in controlling your conditions.

There are cycles bigger than us and we will cycle through all of them. As Kohelet goes on to say, to everything there is a season:

A time to be born, a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.
A time to weep, a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, a time to dance.
A time to seek, a time to lose.
A time to keep, a time to cast away.

 Kohelet casts away his need to control. Kohelet makes room for the possible futility of his efforts in the human world. And he comes to this conclusion: We cannot understand God’s plan, and so all that is left to do is lismoach v’la’asot tov b’chayav. To be happy and to do good in our lives.

These are not the words of someone who has given up, but the words of someone who has opened up.

My last question tonight about this odd and wonderful book is this: why on Sukkot? The other pairings seem to make sense. On Pesach, in the spring, we read of love in Song of Songs. On Shavuot, when marking our covenant with God, we read about Ruth and her covenant with Naomi. But this? Kohelet on Sukkot?

Maybe it is about the harvest. You go into the fields and you realize that neither your careful tending nor your gross negligence had so very much effect on the crop. The rain and the sun were beyond your control. We don’t always know what we will harvest in our lives. So be careful of the level of your attachment to the outcome.

Or maybe it’s this. On Sukkot we live in a structure that is, by design, impermanent. Anitcha turned architecture. We eat and sleep and pray in it. And this structure, like our lives, is blown by winds much stronger than it. It is exposed to rain and cold. We have no choice but to live with its uncertainty, even as we reinforce the ropes and the knots and the fronds lying on top.

But the sukkah also affords us a grand opportunity to peer up from our lives and see the stars. They are changing too, but so slowly as to seem unchanging. They are distant from us but not irrelevant to us. There is space – makom – that binds us to them. We are tethered to them by light years of ayin, of nothingness.

This malchut, this kingdom, is much bigger than we are. Our world is like the wind that blows in its season and comes back around to blow again; our lives are the palm fronds rustling in that wind; and all this against the glittering and ancient backdrop of stars that, for all intents and purposes, have always been and will always be there.

That is the perspective provided by Sukkot and set to words by Kohelet. All is impermanent. There is a time for everything. And it’s all been done before.

And sometimes, even if briefly, that can come as a great relief.