Wintering with Kohelet

BY DR. ERICA BROWN

Traditionally, we read Kohelet on Sukkot when the air is crisp, the harvest is done, and the leaves are falling. But in my mind, Kohelet will always be a decidedly wintry book. Giving biblical books a season provides a different kind of framing. Like winter, the day in Kohelet is short. The night is long and falls quickly. Sometimes there is never light:

“Though it [the stillborn] comes into futility and departs into darkness, and its very name is covered with darkness, though it has never seen or experienced the sun, it is better off than he – yes, even if the other lived a thousand years twice over but never had his fill of enjoyment! For are not both of them bound for the same place?” (Kohelet 6:4–6).

In chapter twelve, the author, in his twilight years, looks back with longing as the sights and sounds of everyday activities dim: “And the doors to the street are shut – with the noise of the hand mill growing fainter, and the song of the bird feebler, and all the strains of music dying down” (12:4). A funeral procession passes by on the street: “…Man sets out for his eternal abode, with mourners all around in the street” (12:5). Scholars call the metaphor “the ruined estate.” You could also call it winter.

Soon the night will be permanent: “So appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them;’ before sun and light and moon and stars grow dark, and the clouds come back again after the rain” (12:1–2). The sunshine is quickly eclipsed. If Kohelet were a color, it might be the color of storm clouds in February.

A few years ago, trying to make my own peace with the winter months, I read Wintering by the English writer Katherine May. “In our relentlessly busy contemporary world,” May wrote, “we are forever trying to defer the onset of winter.” But examining countries and cultures that are better prepared for the season so she could embrace it, May resolved to open her mind to winter’s many gifts. “A sharp wintering,” she writes, “would do us good.”

By this, May means that, “If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too.” That’s a skill Kohelet teaches with his disillusioned critique of the vanities of the world: work, money, and even wisdom. Rather than avoid pain, he leans into it with boyish curiosity and occasional cynicism. His voice is canonized because it is authentic to the unvarnished human experience.

Kohelet’s sharpness makes his many verses praising happiness all the sweeter. These verses appear throughout the book like little intentional epaulets that break the misery of the book’s existential cloak. As the Solomonic old preacher famously says, there is a season for everything, and, “A time for every experience under heaven.” Even in the depths of winter, there are glimpses of summer. There is a thaw that makes the darkness tolerable.

The momentary relief of food and drink is repeated in isolated verses and, for the last time, appears in chapter nine: “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by G-d” (9:7). Give yourself permission to detest life at times and to enjoy life because its transitory pain should not be ignored and because transitory joy should not be devalued. Temporal enjoyment is a respite because it is so short-lived, like bright sunlight reflected on a field of frost. Spring will be here soon enough.

Mature students of Kohelet appreciate that the book is read in the fall because, on some level, it is the book that best prepares us for life’s winters. Eric Wilson in Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, warns of the dangers of shallow happiness: “To desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic.”

The capacity to see beauty in the winter of life, the kind Kohelet offers, is to render the entire range of human experience worthwhile: “Then the L-rd your G-d will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live” (Devarim 30:6). It is the circumcised heart – the one that is imperfect, vulnerable, and broken – that truly enables us to live.

 

Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the founding director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks/Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. She has written or co-authored 15 books on the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, and leadership and has been published in many popular newspapers and journals. Her latest book is Kohelet and the Search for Meaning (Maggid, 2023). She currently serves as a community scholar for Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, New Jersey.

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