Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and What is Yours

And so you see I have come to doubt

All that I once held as true

I stand alone, without beliefs

The only Truth I know is You [1]

This existential drive to Be a human being, to be “Real”, valued, is one that is present in all of humanity. Philosophy is as old as the world itself.

You are here.

We have seen hundreds of wars over the definition of Real, with the current battlefield shifting to the postmodernist Western world (nothing is real except as defined by you) and the Arab world (Heaven is real, this world is not, death is to be embraced upon submission to heaven/Allah, and that’s the only thing that matters).

The Jewish view is a bit more complex…and misunderstood. As it tends to be.

Avoda: Who Are You?

עבודה and שמחה seem to be synonyms in Torah. Sadness is experienced on a personal level as a consequence of worthlessness (the תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה’ אלקיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל[2]). Who am I? What am I? The more I have an answer, the happier I am, and the more I do not, the sadder I am. [This is why people who are animals, idiots, and worse can still be happy, and often are…they have embraced that identity, and live as that person.] As Mesillas Yesharim states, succinctly, עבודה is the כלל עבודת האדם בעולמו[3] – knowing who you are, and what you do, and perhaps how and why.

Our עבודה is then supposed to be two-fold. One is to know yourself, to explore who you are, define it, learn it…to Be yourself. The other half is to Become – to grow, change, act within the world with what you have been given.

So Man lives in two worlds – one of Being, in which what is, Is (and let us call this גן עדן, or עולם הבא, the Universe, or the “There” we are seeking to arrive at); and the other a world of Becoming, in which nothing is defined, all is in flux, things can change (and often do)…a land of shadows, of representations, of illusions (and let us call this עולם הזה, or the multiverse, the “Cave”[4], or the “Here” of the present moment undefined).

It is stuck between two worlds that we find ourselves questioning the value of our lives, the realness of either world within a small, insignificant life of little details and mistakes.

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)

The book that is perhaps the definitive study of Man’s attempts to find the answers of what life is all about is קהלת (Ecclesiastes). Shlomo points out the futility, the stupidity, the pitiful minutiae of what a Man can seek to Be or Become within a Universe where the King is All. And he doesn’t seem to answer it at all, instead giving what seems to be some religious sounding cop out of “Do Mitzvis, for that is what Man is”[5]. However, it is his line of questioning that is paying attention to, as all his questions focus on three distinct points[6]:

1) The world is unfolding within a closed system, and therefore your Being is futile/worthless in its own right – it only exists within that world (אין זכרון לראשונים וגם לאחרונים שיהיו לא יהיה[7]),

2) The futility of what you do within that system, because it is attributable to the mechanics of that world (i.e. קנאה, biological drives), and not you ( מה יתרון לאדם בכל עמלו[8]),

3) That what Is, is – and this has nothing to do with you. It existed before you, and will after you do – so what is it you can affect or effect beyond your little life מה שנעשה הוא שיעשה, ואין דבר חדש תחת השמש)[9]).

Or in simple terms, the world is nothing but a simulation program (unconnected to anything outside of itself), you are nothing, and can’t become something.

It is interesting to point out that personal identity is the sum totality of those same three elements Shlomo is questioning: your Being, within the open Becoming of yourself, which is within the higher plane of reality (Gan Eden) that you act in. In slightly less obtuse terms, your Being within your (and the world’s) Becoming, which itself lies within the overall Being of the world. In extremely less obtuse terms, what you are, what you do as an expression of that, and the arena in which you act in are the ingredients of “who you are”.

Therefore Sholmo is not just talking about the futilities of the world in an academic or philosophical way as much as he is asking, “Who am I?” Much the same as the “hashkafa questions” of today’s yeshivish youth are actually questions of identity.[10] (And it is here we return to the problems raised in the first chapter.)

When Shlomo points out the pitiful (and horrific) condition of human existence, of Being, it is not this longwinded philosophical treatise it is made out to be – it is the complaints and questions of every one of us. What’s the point? Does it truly matter? Aren’t we all just food for worms? Of what purpose is all this farce anyway?

Questions from the Outside

There is one brilliant thing about קהלת, however, that is taken for granted today but truly is the most amazing supposition of all. קהלת’s questions are predicated on someone having the perspective of being within the world while simultaneously looking from outside of it as well. This is not a light thing – while today the idea of souls and heaven are widespread, and most people are able to see themselves from the “outside” within the context of a perfect world to some extent, it is still a remarkable achievement to be so aware of the parameters and interplay of those two worlds to be able to see yourself in both. There are few people who ever gain that perspective in life, let alone be able to put it into words. (And definitely not 2500 years ago.)

Again, to lessen the esoteric-ness of the last paragraph, the difference between an animal and a human, as we all know, is “self-consciousness” – the ability to see yourself from the outside. To have reached a level of awareness of the human condition to be able to not just question life from within the perspective of life, but also from outside it, is an amazing accomplishment!

But it is only with that perspective can you begin to tackle the question of who you are, and who you want to be – because you can only know yourself when you define yourself in both Being and Becoming, both within the world and the Universe as a whole (i.e. both worlds are accounted for).

Asifa (“Gathering”)

Surprisingly, Shlomo’s efforts to answer the questions all come down to one strange idea called “אסיפה” – he talks of טוב יום המוות מיום הוולדו[11] and טוב ללכת לבית אבל[12], of death (which is called “אסיף” – as in “ויאסף אל עמיו[13]”), of ends, טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו[14]”, of gathering in, of the Torah that is “כדרבנות וכמשמרות נטועים בעלי אספות נתנו מרעה אחד[15]. He insists that it is Life one must embrace – “כי מי יחבר אל כל החיים יש בטחון כי לכלב חי הוא טוב מן האריה המת[16]”. And then, wildly, he contradicts an earlier statement[17] by telling you “ראה חיים אם אשה אשר אהבת כל ימי הבלך כי הוא חלקך בחיים ובעמלך אשר אתה עמל תחת השמש[18] – that the whole point of it all is to live your little petty life with your little petty wife because that is your lot.

Finally, he ends off by saying a bunch of philosophical statements about the fleeting nature of life וזכר את בוראך בימי בחורתיך עד אשר לא יבאו ימי הרעה והגיעו שנים אשר תאמר אין לי בהם חפץ[19]), as if to say, Live what you can before you cannot. Which is not much of a solution, as hedonism is usually the fastest way to suicide[20] – unless it is meant to say that his previous point is what is standing, and that it is your lot in life and what you gather to it is all there is.

So it seems the answer, perhaps, IS אסיפה.

Integration

אסיפה, in its simplest understanding, is the act of gathering in, of harvesting, of taking what is needed and leaving behind what is not; It means coming to terms with something, to encompass it, to incorporate it… אסיפה, simply, is integration.

The world is a smorgasboard of random happenings. There is no thing that is more or better than any other – the postmodernists aren’t completely crazy, after all! Why is knowledge better than pleasure? Why is pleasure better than productivity? Why is civility better than chaos? מה יתרון לאדם[21] indeed – unless the answer lies in how those disparate elements are united as one Whole.

For very few people live integrationally[22], and even fewer live in a way that distills their experiences into the heady brew called Life. It is easy to “learn lessons from your past”, to walk away from “previous lifetimes”, to “be a new/different person”[23]. It is much harder to integrate those experiences into your life as a whole, to weave a tapestry of experiences into a Life of Wholeness, of completeness, of Oneness – with yourself, and with Existence in totality. Yet, unless you do so, there will always be a part of you left behind…a piece of your soul adrift in the fabric of the cosmos, and not a part of YOU.

The Mission of Yisrael

This is the mission of Yisrael – we are tasked by G-d to bring Oneness to the world, to unite it all in a Malchut Shamayim. This doesn’t mean to build walls and keep out things we don’t like[24]. It means to find out where they fit in. Look, learn, experience, EVERYTHING! See how it integrates with everything else, with yourself, with the world that you encapsulate and encapsulates you.

And don’t just investigate. Define. Understand. Relate.

What do we call intentional? Mistaken? An accident? How to look at punishment – punitive, or rehabilitative? What are the obligations of a society to its members? Those individuals to the society?

But why stop there?

Halacha weighs at what point a penis inside a vagina is called sex. Whether (married) couples can engage in anal sex (Surprise! Yes they can, provided the woman agrees to.)[25]. Sex isn’t something to run away from – not any more than using a bathroom is.

[Look at the Church. See what repressing sex can do[26]? The Church is the one organization in world history that singlehandedly, for one THOUSAND YEARS, destroyed science, love, psyches, and human advancement with its destructive teachings of faith and heaven chasing. Don’t read[27], don’t learn, don’t experiment, don’t use medicine, don’t have sex if you’re “holy”, and don’t invest in this world…heaven! Heaven is all that matters. Stick your heads in the dirt of your own filth and cry out to your dead savior – only that is called “living”…oh, yes, and bring up your children to serve as the altars of your beliefs. I mean altar boys. I meant altar boys.]

Or maybe we should define at what point a fetus is alive (for purposes like abortion, murder, damages, or who knows? Maybe even the census). How about the definition of usury? What shade/s of red is menstrual blood? The precise point that today becomes tomorrow (sunset)? The way a plant grows (which bracha do you make on a banana)? Or maybe we should sink a few pages and a few thousand years into discussing the mechanics of an acceptable presumption of status quo[28]?

Because Life Is Holy

As Sebastian Vilar Rodriguez[29] so brilliantly put it:

“I walked down the street in Barcelona, and suddenly discovered a terrible truth – Europe died in Auschwitz.

We killed six million Jews and replaced them with 20 million Muslims. In Auschwitz we burned a culture, thought, creativity, and talent. We destroyed the chosen people, truly chosen, because they produced great and wonderful people who changed the world.

The contribution of this people is felt in all areas of life: science, art, international trade, and above all, as the conscience of the world. These are the people we burned. And under the pretense of tolerance, and because we wanted to prove to ourselves that we were cured of the disease of racism, we opened our gates to 20 million Muslims, who brought us stupidity and ignorance, religious extremism and lack of tolerance, crime and poverty due to an unwillingness to work and support their families with pride.

They have turned our beautiful European cities into the third world, drowning in filth and crime. Shut up in the apartments they receive free from the government, they plan the murder and destruction of their naive hosts.

And thus, in our misery, we have exchanged culture for fanatical hatred, creative skill for destructive skill, intelligence for backwardness and superstition.

We have exchanged the pursuit of peace of the Jews of Europe and their talent for hoping for a better future for their children, their determined clinging to life because life is holy, for those who pursue death, for people consumed by the desire for death for themselves and others, for our children and theirs.

What a terrible mistake was made by miserable Europe.”

“Because life is holy.” This is why Jews, of all crazy people, have an almost pathological need to experience everything. How can I know about something if it isn’t a part of me? If I have not tasted it, felt it, absorbed it? Just to know, to think? That is arbitrary, a solipsistic way to live in my own head[30]. Even the Torah is written in action form – DO this, DON’T do that; the brilliant rebuttal Moses gives the angels when challenged why Supernal Wisdom should be given to flesh and blood is simply that the human condition allows for interplay, for giving and taking through experiential transaction (in the literal sense of the term)[31]. We are addicts to life itself, to its rich and varied smorgasbord of possibilities that give us a chance to Be and Become. And this, this madcap and truly wild adventure of experiencing life, the give and take of relationship with the Universe of which we ourselves are part, the lonely stroll through Life to discover what is and what is not, and the deep desire to Live before we cannot, is אסיפה.

Male and Female

However, אסיפה is a male challenge (notice Shlomo is talking to men, the “petty life with your petty wife”?), and not in the way you’d expect.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain the male/female (genotype/phenotype) dichotomy [or better yet, deny it]. Here is some more.

Perhaps the simplest way to understand the two concepts is to present them as conceptual spaces, which incorporate the physical, biological, emotional, existential, and all other spheres. Simply put, a definition has to be true across the board; if it is not, its just some good sounding ad hoc pabulum.

However, before attempting to define differences, sometimes it is best to describe the similarities first.

People (psyches) are best understood as conceptual spaces, built both of their genes and experiences. The “walls” of this space are permeable, and are made of a latticework of all they are and have been. Within this space (read: lack/emptiness), lies consciousness – itself simply the awareness of the space, and the walls.

That lack/space is inherently feminine in nature; the Hebrew for “woman/feminine” IS “space”[32]. It is a repository, a Place. However, repositories serve two purposes – to hold, and to disseminate (think of a library). And it is this dichotomy of function (and therefore form) that male and female begin to take shape – one is for information dissemination (genetic and otherwise), the other an informational hold. Put both “informations” together, and something is formed, made in formation – born. This being the case, the human experience is inherently feminine – the spaces and places of our selves, which we may have called a soul many years ago, are empty, after all[33]. However, a space can both be a “thing” and a “place”[34] – think of a cup or bowl, for example. The aspect that is a “thing” is male – it can shape, define, connect to that which fills it. The Hebrew for “male” is “connection/remember[35]”. The aspect that is a place, to be filled, is feminine – it is that which holds within.

We instinctively grasp all this in the West, for our culture is a “consumer” one – we already know that is Life itself we devour, Existence itself that we consume. The idea of Being as a negative space is not a new one[36]; moreover, the recent trend in “metrosexuality” and feminine men suggests that men are beginning to accept the inner empty lack as a component of life (and thankfully perhaps not trying to obsessively fill it anymore!).  This consumption of Life itself, the “sucking the marrow from the bones of Life”[37], this gathering of experiences in a quest to Become one’s self (and then share it, create with it, and give it a Being of its own) – this is אסיפה: gathering.

Of course, this would suggest men are more complex than previously assumed – they are both male and female. An elementary knowledge of biology would make this a ridiculous “chiddush” – all children are conceived female, after all. The subtext, the inner world, the soul, the human condition – it is feminine in nature.

I’ll See You On The Dark Side of the Moon

There is a dark side of the moon[38] – the subconscious place in our selves which is aware of its only being a hollow space within a/the universe. Whether that space is meant to spread potential for Life, or to gather it in and create one, is a secondary order differential. In the most fundamental way, we ingest Life as we live it, and we allow seeds planted in our minds by experience to flower into new and different things (conception, right?); that is essentially a feminine mode of living.

However, it is a dark side of the moon, because it lies in the subconscious, for men. The operating code in the software of the human psyche may well be feminine, and the mechanics of human development may be feminine in nature, but males live split between that feminine programming/living, and their male tools for doing so; it is a dichotomous existence that by definition leaves men vulnerable to never “gathering” their experiences in the sense of אסיפה, never making something of themselves.

And so the challenge of אסיפה is a distinctly male one – men are sperm sowers, they are potential spreaders; men are wired to spread out, not take in or reflect. They are always concerned of connections, of potential – of what will be, what could be, and they are never fully in the moment (hence why the most common feeling men have, other than hunger, is “THIS is my life?!? This little, petty, nothing?? I, who could be a legend among men, have to take out the garbage??!”).

Covenant and Repentance

The binding of yourself into a “restricted” world of what you have chosen, to what is (therefore) real, and the commitment to act on what is real within the Real, is the ברית. A man’s sperm is his genetic record, the sum of who he is in terms of the future, the only hope of something being Born from his wanderings amongst the shadows of the Real looking for a sliver of Life to call his own. After all, sperm is cheap[39], and it is generic – it may be what could be, but it, itself, isn’t. However, it is what he wants to, and needs to, leave behind, in the space of Existence – outside his own space, hopefully in a way that has a kiyum (and gives him one as well). In investing that in the world, in a particular, for the sake of future particulars (and not the generic “what could be”), he is able to accomplish something in actuality.

 Therefore the ברית is a “binding” that is physically inscribed by removing the protection around your sex – you are now vulnerable to what you are doing; it now impacts you as you impact it. It ALLOWS you to impact it because you are allowing it to impact you; this is the opening of a relationship (which itself is only the mutual opening of vulnerability, as both parties allow the other into their lives). It forces you to integrate your choices in to a cogent whole, into One reality. Men bind their lives to the woman they live with, to their home, to the smallness of a local life instead of surfing the waves of fantasies in the oceans of their imagination. It is a declaration, an investment – HERE is where my potential will bear fruit, and where I choose to plant it – with all that is going to entail.[40]

ראה חיים אם אשה אשר אהבת כל ימי הבלך כי הוא חלקך בחיים. This is אסיפה in its most stark form – and the עבודה of Life. And the most painful thing for a man to accept, perhaps.  For it is far too easy to live in your own head, to revel in your imagination[41] and untethered dreams, to demand the heaven on earth of your own vision (and the double meaning of both dream and foresight/prediction is implied) instead of the petty, sad, and pathetic trek through the little insignificant happenings of life in search of integration and unity. It is easier to “know” than to understand, to ponder than to relate, to investigate instead of invest. Yet it is in that investment, that “binding”, that vulnerability to that which Is, that we come to taste the Ohr haGanuz that allows us to Perceive the Oneness of everything within the Universe, including ourselves. THIS is the Adam whose task is “la’avod et ha’adama”, to work the plot that is uniquely his in Gan Eden.

Here, perhaps we begin to come full circle with the problems we identified in chapter one – we have bought into the Western disease of “cognito ergo sum”, in which in only noticing my thoughts can I deduce my Being – forgetting one’s awareness of life, one’s actual LIVING of it! It is only to he who lives in his head that beliefs matter; only he needs to make believe, to create headspaces in which he can live in, because he has walked away from Reality! And leave it to the children who haven’t been tainted by the forbidden fruits of Knowledge to instead beg to understand, to experience, to Become. For as the song quoted in the beginning of the chapter explains, it is when we stand alone without beliefs that we can know the Truth of He who Was, Is and Will Be.

So when one is told that אסיפה is unacceptable, when societal pressures and social mores create an unbearable pressure to leave Life behind, they Return to what they are, to their חלק. And it is no accident that אסיפה also means to Return…

For it is תשובה itself which is the ultimate shearing of mistaken and solipsistic make believes, and standing before He who you know you cannot Be without. The only Truth we know is You.


[1] Simon & Garfunkel, “Kathy’s Song”, Sounds of Silence. 1966

[2] דברים כח:מז

[3] מסילת ישרים פרק א

[4] For all you Plato enthusiasts, or Mumford and Sons fans.

[5] סוף דבר הכל נשמע….

[6] And it is worth noting that his preamble (קהלת א:א – א:יא), from where I am taking the quotes, brilliantly encapsulates the rest of the sefer, and is meant to be a concise summary of the entire body of work to follow (hence the only “space” in all the book is between that preamble and the rest of the book as a whole). I am only including the words central to the point I am making in each quote, I cannot stress how much better it would be for you to read the pesukim yourself as well.

[7] קהלת א:יא

[8] קהלת א:ג

[9] קהלת א:ט

[10] I.e. “How do we know the Torah was given on Har Sinai?” really means “Why can’t I have sex like Trevor, Madison, Ethan, or Kristen?” Or better yet, “with Trevor, Madison, Ethan, and Kristen?”

[11] קהלת ז:א

[12] קהלת ז:ב

[13] בראשית כה:ח

[14] קהלת ז:ח

[15]  קהלת יב:יא– this פסוק is explained beautifully, though also enigmatically, in Maseches Chagiga

[16] קהלת ט:ד

[17] ומוצא אני מר ממות את האשה – קהלת ז:כו

[18] קהלת ט:ט

[19] קהלת יב:א

[20] Remember Kurt Cobain’s “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”? And his shotgun blast to the head?

[21] קהלת א:ג

[22] According to my spell checker, I have invented that word.

[23] Quotation marks due to these statements being used by countless people in trying to explain themselves, usually TO themselves.

[24] And justify doing so by saying that G-d doesn’t like them either…

[25] נדרים 20b. Tell that to your “chassan/kallah teacher”.

[26] It is not an accident that Eros and succubi are portrayed as children in Christian art, and therefore not hard to understand why the priests tend to love the children a little too much.

[27] Literally. The Church even forbade its laity from reading the Bible, their own Holy Book, for almost a thousand years.

[28] חזקה.

[29] This writing has not been verified yet. However, even if it is a fake, it’s worth it for the point it makes.

[30] And it is only someone so ludicrously removed from what it means to live, and so far into his own head that it is all he is aware of, that can say “cognito ergo sum” (Descartes) and think he said anything at all.

[31] שבת 88b

[32] Nukva/נוקבה.

[33] We have all felt it, deeply, at some point in our lives.

[34] It is this duality that gives people such a hard time when trying to understand “souls”.

[35] Zachar/זכר.

[36] The AriZal’s idea of tzimtzum essentially says this.

[37] Praphrase of Thoreau, “Walden”, Chapter Two.

[38] Eponymous reference to the Pink Floyd album. It revolved around the topic of madness.

[39] Sperm, on the open market, is about ten dollars. An egg is ten thousand.

[40] After all, isn’t that what G-d does with our world, and Yisrael in particular?

[41] The lyrics to another Simon and Garfunkel song illustrate this rather perfectly:

“If you took all the girls I knew when I was single 
Brought ’em all together for one night 
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination 
Everything looks worse in black and white “

(Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. 1973)

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