Days of Random Awe – Day 4: Koheleth/Ecclesiastes 11

by Bob Schwartz

Utter futility!—said Koheleth—
Utter futility! All is futile!
Koheleth/Ecclesiastes 1:2 (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

The random chapter of Tanakh for this Day 4 of the Days of Awe is from the Book of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew by the name of the sage it is attributed to, Koheleth.

This book is unique in the Tanakh and uniquely troublesome for some rabbis and biblical interpreters. The conventional system of rewards and punishments seems, to a certain extent, to have been thrown out the window. Or at least put in perspective.

Here is Chapter 11:

Send your bread forth upon the waters; for after many days you will find it. Distribute portions to seven or even to eight, for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth.

If the clouds are filled, they will pour down rain on the earth; and *if a tree falls to the south or to the north, the tree will stay where it falls. If one watches the wind, he will never sow; and if one observes the clouds, he will never reap. Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen. Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good.

How sweet is the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!

O youth, enjoy yourself while you are young! Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth. Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes—but know well that God will call you to account for all such things—1and banish care from your mind, and pluck sorrow out of your flesh! For youth and black hair are fleeting.

The Jewish Study Bible explains:

His [Koheleth’s] observations are bound together by certain fundamental themes. The first is expressed by the term “futility” (hevel). For Koheleth, this is foremost the inability of humans to make sense of the world around them—to see a coherent pattern, a plan to their lives and to nature, in the sense of a movement toward lasting goals, a line of development or progress….

But the human ability to discern what these all are is frustrated, he argues, again and again, as evident by the fact that the traditional doctrine of reward and punishment for the good and the wicked does not appear to work. In this regard, Koheleth is arguing against the sort of position evident in the book of Deuteronomy or the bulk of Proverbs, for which the covenant tradition and experience provide certainty about what God demands of humans and so about His reward and punishment justice.

The one thing that is clear for Koheleth is death. It is the final point in each one’s maʿaseh, the one immutable event in life that every human, animal, and other organism must succumb to, and that cuts across, therefore, all categories of morality, class and being. If there is any survival beyond death, either physically or in terms of memory and influence, humans cannot know this, and so cannot rely on it. What is left to humans, then, as Koheleth sees it—though he does raise an occasional doubt—is principally to enjoy their toil while they are alive….

The capacity to discern all of this—to understand what can be known and what cannot—is for Koheleth the task of wisdom. Wisdom, therefore, is most effective when it is used to clarify its own limits.

This does not suggest some sort of libertine, hedonistic nihilism. In this respect, Koheleth reflects a very modern perspective that, as with the Book of Job, offers something like divine existentialism. Just because you stop trying to make sense, there is still meaning. But that meaning may be inherently hidden in the phenomena, and very different from the external order and programs others try to impose on that meaning—and on us. Compassion and generosity may be required of us, and we may seemingly be rewarded for their doing and punished for their lack, but it is ultimately the facts of life and death, and of futility, that are their source.