Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun

by Susan Weinberg

"To everything there is a season." Quick!  Who wrote that?  If you guessed Pete Seeger you're wrong although he did borrow it from a guy known as the Kohelet.  The resulting song Turn, Turn, Turn actually has the distinction of being the #1 hit with the oldest lyrics, no copyright infringement here.  We have in fact appropriated many selections from Kohelet, giving credence to his expression  there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Our lab session began with an examination of Ecclesiastes, also known as the Kohelet.  So who is this Kohelet guy? Chapter 1 introduces him as the son of David implying that Solomon is the author of this rather pessimistic assessment of life. Kohelet means the Convener and its alternate name Ecclesiastes means essentially the same, the Convoker. 

There is some dispute about this proposed source and in fact it is believed to have several authors from a later period due to the nature of the Hebrew.  The more puzzling aspect of these passages in the inconsistency in the message.

In our lab session Meryll led us in an examination of some key sections of the Kohelet.  In Chapter 1 he presents his approach to seeking out wisdom concluding that wisdom is vexation and knowledge increases sorrow.  In Chapter 2 he explores laughter and mirth, wine, great works, wealth, all joys and concludes that while wisdom excels folly, in the end all face a common fate, death. Thus he comes  to the conclusion that one should eat and drink and enjoy life, because in the end it all comes to naught.  Not exactly a message that the rabbis wished to promote.  And yet after this puzzling note he concludes "for to the man who is good in his sight he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy."  Huh?

It is in Chapter 3 that we find the passage that inspired Pete Seeger with its poetry. In Ecclesiastes 3:11-14  he extols the creation of God as beautiful in its time, urges us to do good and suggests that we should eat, drink and enjoy pleasure as the gift of God. 

In  4:9-12 he makes a bid for the belief that two are better than one, asserting that this offers support, warmth and defense. Whether this partner is female is cast in doubt by the aspersions he casts on women in 7:23-29 whose heart is "snares and nets" and yet in 9:9 he urges one to enjoy life with the wife that one loves. Perhaps within his 1000 wives and concubines he had examples of each.

In the midst of pessimism and cries of all is vanity we find such contradictory phrases as 8:5 "Who so keepth the commandment shall know no evil thing; and a wise man's heart discerneth time and judgment. " And yet just a few lines later in 8:10 he bemoans the fact that the sentence against sinners is not carried out expeditiously resulting in sin in the hearts of men.  He concludes with the well-known exhortation to eat, drink and be merry (8:15).

Let's take a look at the conclusion of this debate with himself.  In 12:13-14 we find these final lines: 13 The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. 14 For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.

What are we to make of these contradictions with the exhortations to eat, drink and be merry and the meaninglessness and futility of life?  The rabbis struggled with these writings and are believed to have added the conclusion to make it palatable in its inclusion.  It was also proposed that everything under the sun speaks to the earthly realm distinct from the realm of the Torah which exists above the sun.  Despite its many contradictions, these passages offer much poetry that is reflected in our language.

In the second part of our session we spent some time discussing our work for our upcoming exhibition.  Some themes are beginning to emerge.  Several took an approach to wisdom of many paths and learning from other people.  Others looked at the ancestral wisdom that is passed down through generations.  We concluded that this has proven to be a rich topic that upon exploration has offered many directions from which to approach this theme.

As we closed our session Ann shared a reading titled Daniel's Matzo which can be found at handouts.

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