On Shabbat Hol HaMoed of Sukkot, tradition holds that we read Megillat Kohelet. I’ve always loved the sense of pedagogic irony that our Sages had when they instructed that the festival which has a greater emphasis on joyfulness than any other occasion in the calendar should also be the time when we enter King Solomon’s pessimistic world that declares havel havalim hakol havel – all is nothingness, vanity, futility.
I’d like to explore this tense relationship between joy and sadness, optimism and depression, through the prism of a deceptively simple midrash found in the collection known as Kohelet Rabba. The question that bothers the rabbis is the order in which Shlomo Hamelech wrote his three works. The question is an interesting one because of the great difference between the books. Kohelet, as mentioned, is dark and gloomy. The world is full of injustice and there is little to be done about it. Any achievement is only fleeting. The memory of great works will fade quickly. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) is a love song. Fervent, passionate, sensuous – the relationship between the two lovers, the dod and the raya, is so powerful and full of emotion that it has always been viewed as the ultimate metaphor for describing the relationship between God and Israel (side-note: this is a radical and daring idea, not a conservative kill-joy one as many people wrongly assume). Mishlei (Proverbs), in contrast to both of the other works, is practically minded. It contains aphorisms for how to best deal with this world and make a practical success of this life. A soft answer turns away wrath – is my mother’s personal favourite.
How fascinating that one person could have written three such different works! And so, to return to the question, in what order did Shlomo write his works? The Midrash presents us with two answers:
רבי יונתן אמר: שיר השירים כתב תחילה, ואחר כך משלי, ואחר כך קהלת – ומייתי לה מדרך ארץ: כשאדם נער – אומר דברי זמר, הגדיל – אומר משלות, הזקין אומר: הבל הבלים
רבי יוסי אמר: לעת זקנה, סמוך למיתתו, שרתה עליו רוח הקודש ואמר שלשה ספרים הללו: משלי, שיר השירים וקהל
Rebbi Yonatan said: Shir HaShirim he wrote first, after that Mishlei, and after that Kohelet – and he derived this from derech eretz – when a man is young, he writes songs, when he grows up he writes parables/advice (Mishle) and when he is old he says, all is vanity.
Rebbi Yossi said: as an old man, close to death, divine inspiration came to Shlomo and he wrote these three works: Mishlei, Shir HaShirim and Kohelet.
For Rebbi Yonatan, Shlomo wrote the books throughout his life – each one corresponding to the age he was passing through at that time. For Rebbi Yossi, Shlomo, as an old man, wrote the books simultaneously with one another.
What is to be made of this disagreement? It seems to be that both suggestions convey important messages about growth, development and experience – messages that I seek to convey on a regular basis to my students. I’d like to share them here.
From Rebbi Yonatan I learn that each stage of our life is to be treated as distinct from each other stage – each has its own challenges and potential achievements – and that we may be doing ourselves a disservice if we are held hostage to expectations and assumptions about ourselves that come from a different period of our life. One of the most damaging lessons that I find many students have absorbed during their time in Israel is the idea one’s spiritual and religious life goes downhill from aged 19. The best one can hope to do is to tread water and not stray too far from one’s time in yeshiva or midrasha. I miss the yeshiva every day and there is no place that I have more gratitude towards for my own development than the yeshiva. But a young man or woman finishing their Torah studies in Israel has another 101 years to live and will be left with a sense of guilt, lack of fulfillment or apathy if they think that the rest of their life won’t provide them with meaningful challenges and areas for growth. Shlomo may have written Shir HaShirim by the time he was 19 but he still had a lot more left in him. Rebbi Yonatan teaches us that each stage of life has its own book of Tanakh that needs to be written.
And what is to be learned from Rebbi Yossi’s claim that Shlomo wrote all three books in the same period of his life? Perhaps that it’s OK to have multiple and conflicting emotions and experiences at any one time. That it’s legitimate to hold different and even contradictory values simultaneously and to find meaning in very different pastimes and commitments. Maybe this is true wisdom, and it’s probably easier to achieve as we get older. I like the idea that it’s OK to be a Kohelet person and a Shir HaShirim person at the same time! And that not only is this combination of contradictions legitimate, it’s the well-spring of creativity and even ru’ach hakodesh.
And possibly Rebbi Yossi teaches us something even more important. That we shouldn’t feel strait-jacketed into feeling a certain thing at a certain point in our lives just because that’s what is expected of us. It’s ok to be a young person and to be depressed and pessimistic even though everyone around you is incessantly positive and expects you to be too. Better still, it’s ok to be elderly and frail, but nevertheless be head over heels in love with the partner you’ve been with for sixty years, singing ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine’ (Shir HaShirim 1:1)