For centuries, scholars have debated whether the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is positive affirmation of life or cynical view that life’s brevity renders it meaningless. Some argue that the book represents insightful wisdom, while others argue its confused.
The debate stems from the apparent contradictions within the book itself. These contradictions, as well as the contradiction of some passages with the Old Testament, almost kept it out of the Tanach — the compendium of the 5 Mosaic books of the Torah, the books of the prophets, and the “writings.”
Although the authorship is attributed to King Solomon, some have suggested that perhaps it is a compilation of wisdom written by more than one person. If it was written by one person, perhaps he wrote it over a long span of time, or maybe while very drunk.
These theories derive from the same underlying assumption: that the contradictions within Kohelet are a flaw.
In fact, not only are the apparent contradictions not a flaw, but also the idea that Kohelet even contains contradictions itself rests on a flawed assumption.
Life Is Contradiction
To use a software metaphor, the apparent contradictions in Kohelet are the feature, not the bug.
This is the point: life is filled with apparent contradictions.
Finding meaning and purpose in life is not a linear pursuit. Kohelet references the cyclical nature of time: the cycle of the seasons, the fact that everything that is and ever will be already was; there is nothing new under the sun.
Along the way we have experienced that lead to discovery of apparently contradictory wisdom.
As physicist Niels Bohr said:
The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
Rather than being a source of consternation this is a sign of progress. As Bohr said,
How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.
Contradiction Is An Illusion
As much as we may see contradiction in life, we must also remember that we see such contradictions only when we fall into the illusion of duality, the idea that opposites even exist in the first place.
The truth is that nothing is all good or all evil, all light or all dark. All wicked or all righteous. Everything contains everything else. And it is only by knowing one that we can know the other.
Just as we can know the light only through knowing the dark, we can know foolishness only by knowing wisdom.
Eventually we may learn that they are the same: the more we learn the more we realize how little we know.
Holding Space For Opposites
In his commentary on Kohelet, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes that the paradoxes identified by Kohelet exemplify the dictum that
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
This is a fundamental element of life that we ignore in our culture, especially when it comes to emotions: the idea that we can experience two apparently opposed emotions at once. But this is often how life presents itself.
In moments of joy, we feel grief, and in moments of grief we feel joy. We might laugh in the midst of our greatest trials and cry in the moments of our greatest triumphs.
The richness of life is experienced by merging apparent opposites to find the yin in the yang and the yang in the yin.
We can look to this year as an example: a pandemic and other events that have created much suffering while also offering profound gifts.
In fact, the greatest tragedy of 2020 would be if we failed to recognize the gifts we’ve been given by the events of this year.
TL;DR: What Is Kohelet Teaching Us?
First, Kohelet teaches us that we can find the meaning we seek when we can hold space for opposites, recognizing and allowing our pain and our joy at the same time.
Second, what makes life meaningful is not what we amass for ourselves or even what we create for others. Our legacy comes not from the books we write, the buildings we build, or the work we do that outlives us, but from the moments where we offer presence to another person.
Although we may feel rushed for time knowing how short life is, finding presence in the now allows us to expand the moments we have.
Third, trying to resolve the apparent contradictions in the wisdom offered is an attempt to make sense of life in a linear way. But life isn’t linear, and life doesn’t always make sense.
- Koren Sukkot Mahzor with translation and commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, 2015 edition, p. 838 ↩