Sunday, September 30, 2012

Confrontations With Kohelet

I'd like to preface this by stating that I should be writing a twelve-page paper on Jewish superstition during the medieval period right now. But I woke up with a head-and-throat ache and until the meds kick in, that paper's going nowhere anyway.

I have a complicated relationship with Megillat Kohelet. I always have. 

Sure, it's a book of wisdom, and one from several thousand years ago, so it's bound to have a few things I disagree with. But it's also well-respected and frequently quoted by philosophers and sixties rock bands. 

Recently, alongside Ezra, Nehemiah, Rambam, The Jews of Modern France, and Maccabees I & II, I was assigned Kohelet as reading for school. Plus, hey, Sukkot is here. Look at me, I'm so timely and topical!!! So I was compelled to read it again. In detail. 

I read it, taking a break every chapter to cheer myself up with a rereading of Harry Potter. What an interesting philosophical team in my head. 

In all seriousness, though, I'm very surprised by what this rereading of Kohelet has brought out in me. 

I mean, sure, it took me triple the time it should have to make it through the first two chapters, what with all the "vanity of vanities, life is nothing but vanity and chasing after the wind" and such. But as I read, I found myself strangely invested. I used to have so many serious discussions about the nature of life and faith with people who held this book in the highest esteem. And here I had to opportunity to have the discussion with the source itself.  It was a test! How could I defend my own worldview against my own brain and this book?

I must admit here, for the sake of honesty and clarity, that when I began this reread, I had no memory of the later chapters of Kohelet. All I remembered is that he says life is pointless, there is a time for everything (turn, turn, turn), women are evil, and that you should serve G-d. 

Kohelet describes throwing himself into pleasure to find meaning, and then into work, and then into wisdom. And I started having a discussion. I found myself writing short notes to Kohelet, asking him questions. Specifically, when I was told to try to picture Kohelet in the way the Rabbis of the Talmud did: as Shlomo HaMelech, as the same guy who wrote my very favorite Megillah, Shir HaShirim. 

That pretty much did it for me. Now, I was angry. I pictured myself raging at the Wise King. 

"What happened to you? Did you forget the words you wrote? Weren't you ever happy enough to freaking WRITE Shir HaShirim??"

I asked a friend of mine, "Do you ever think Kohelet took the time to just sit down and smell a rose?" To which he smirked and replied, "I think his problem is that he smelled a few too many roses, if you know what I mean." 

This just made me angrier. But I kept reading, feeling horribly negative about the whole thing, writing my notes to the King. I even started a new art project, a massive one, one that will occupy my free moments for months to come (hopefully). 

But then a funny thing happened. I reached the part in Harry Potter with the Horcruxes, where Dumbledore explains that the wicked Voldemort's actions are driven not by hatred or even ambition nearly as much as they are by his extreme fear of death. 

In other words, Voldemort was convinced that if he didn't live forever, he might as well not have lived at all, and he was willing to do anything it took to make sure that he'd never die. And since (spoilers!) the only thing he could do to ensure immortality was to actually split his own soul by murdering others and wrapping the severed pieces of his spirit in physical objects, he made the choice to live forever by becoming the face of evil. 

I started thinking about that. Someone so scared of being forgotten they cease to care about others at all, and literally attach themselves to physical objects. Voldemort is described as having followers, but no friends. As having started out handsome and whole, but turning into some kind of creature who is more serpent than human. And I thought, Voldemort is a fool. 

Kohelet doesn't suffer fools. He describes a phase of deciding to be a fool, and finding it almost better than being wise, since wisdom brings with it the pain and sadness of experience. In other words, the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. The more you feel the desire to rage against the things that will outlive you. 

But that's the part of the process where someone like Voldemort stops searching. Kohelet would shake his head and say, "Voldy, you stopped at chapter three! There's nine more to go!" (And this is where I started to shock myself. I was starting to SEE. KOHELET'S. POINT.)

Then, for some strange reason, that metaphor with smelling the roses hit me. 

Of course, when you look at a wall of climbing flowers, you generalize them. From that distance, of course, they all look like they're one and the same (and pointless). And they've got these thorns that keep you from getting close. 

I started to get it, but I didn't feel any wiser. I felt stupider. Why am I trying to find meaning at all, I wondered, when someone so much smarter than me has concluded that everything is vanity?

And then, when I was on my lunch break at work and reading chapter nine, I turned a corner. The quote goes:

The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all...they will never again have a share in their labor under the sun. Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart...let your garments always be white, and your head never lack oil. Enjoy life with a wife you love through all the days of your vanity that He has granted you under the sun, for that is your compensation in life and that is your job which you labor for under the sun. Whatever you have strength to do, do it, for there is neither doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave where you are going. 

You can ask my coworkers. I suddenly started to smile like an idiot. 

I thought about Kohelet and Harry Potter and my own place in life. I realized, life isn't pointless, as long as you make it count. Sure, maybe no one will remember you, Voldemort, but it isn't your place to be remembered forever. You're a person. Your time here is limited, and that's why it counts

You have a job to do. You're not here to be a fool and squander your days doing stupid things you find no meaning in, fighting with people, accruing physical objects to wrap your soul around... all of this is vanity and chasing after the wind. That isn't your job.

Your job is to ensure your life has meaning. Your job is to find the things that give it meaning. Appreciate and enjoy the small things like bread and wine, but make sure your conscience is clear. But also don't forget what's important in life: to find meaning in your deeds, your work, and your relationships. 

You don't see much when you look at a wall of roses. But when you stop to look at one, and take in its scent, there's perfume, and soft petals, and beautiful color.

By being careful, you even learn to navigate around the thorns. But you also can't stand around all day with your nose in a rose. You've got some wisdom to accrue.

In the very big picture of the history of the universe, your everyday actions are nothing but vanity. But here's the point you CAN have. Live well, and live ethically and morally. You won't have regrets for being a good person (unless you're royally messed up, Voldy). 

After the fifth book, even Harry Potter starts getting less angsty and angry and starts thinking before he acts (sure, he has to suffer some horrifying losses first, but still!). After chapter eight, Kohelet starts seeing some meaning. And what did I take from this?

The same thing I talked about in my last post. Of course I won't find meaning in my life if all I'm doing is living to get by. My studies are my top priority now. They're something I need to get through, and I need to do them well. But I've also got to keep on searching for meaning beyond them. Right now, I find meaning in my art and in my friendships. So when the dry documents and horrifying accounts of genocide in my history books become too much, I've got to take a break, and work on my Kohelet art project. 

I can't throw myself into only food and drink, or only labor, or only wisdom. I've got to enjoy these things and find meaning in them. All of them. That's my job under the sun. 

Kohelet and Harry Potter told me so. 


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  2. Ah, the deeper meanings of Harry Potter... I wrote a critical paper about a character from Harry Potter once. I must say, it's very enjoyable to get to read into my favorite book series and get a grade for so doing. I read Kohelet once, but I have basically no recollection of it. Maybe I should read it again. Especially if it will get me to feel better about continuing to be in school so that I can do something useful with my life. Right now the fact that I'm taking an extra year to finish my (Bachelor's! Still!) degree still stings too much, and I'm inclined to panic. Will reading Harry Potter and Kohelet at the same time really make me feel better?

    1. Reading Harry Potter (with the exception of the fifth and sixth books) will always make you feel better. Whether or not Kohelet will depends on your perspective, and how quickly you can get through the licks of the first few chapters to the chewy center of the later ones.