Koheles: Despair and Responsibility

קהלת פרק ב

יז וְשָׂנֵאתִי אֶת-הַחַיִּים כִּי רַע עָלַי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ כִּי-הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ:

יח וְשָׂנֵאתִי אֲנִי אֶת-כָּל-עֲמָלִי שֶׁאֲנִי עָמֵל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ שֶׁאַנִּיחֶנּוּ לָאָדָם שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אַחֲרָי:

יט וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ הֶחָכָם יִהְיֶה אוֹ סָכָל וְיִשְׁלַט בְּכָל-עֲמָלִי שֶׁעָמַלְתִּי וְשֶׁחָכַמְתִּי תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ גַּם-זֶה הָבֶל:

מדרש רבה

ושנאתי את החיים אימיקנטרון היה כותב לאדריאנוס קיסר א”ל אם למולים את שונא אלו הישמעאלים אם למשמרי שבת את שונא אלו הכותיים הרי אין את שונא אלא האומה הזאת בלבד אלקיה יפרע מאותו האיש גזר אדריאנוס דכל די עבד כן יפרסם גרמיה למלכא דמלכא בעי יתן לית מלה אזל חד ופרסים ית גרמיה אמר ארימין רישיה א”ל למה אמרת כן א”ל דאת פני לההוא גברא מן תלת נסיסין בישין א”ל מה אינון א”ל נפשיה דההוא גברא בעיא מיגס גביה בצפרא וברמשא ולית ליה מה דיתן לה וכן אינתתיה וכן בנוי אמר אדריאנוס הואיל והוא חיי חיין בישין שבוקו ליה וקרא אנפשיה ושנאתי את החיים

מעשה בגרגרן אחד שהיה עמל כל ימות השנה ששת ימי המעשה ובשבת לא היה לו מה יאכל מה עשה פעם אחת נתעטף בכלי קורייס שלו ועלה לראש הגג ונפל ומת וקרא אנפשיה ושנאתי את החיים

ר’ הושעיא אתון אמרין ליה דייניך שתיין חמרא בשוקא ולא חמי להון חד זמן נפק ואשכח דיינוי שתן חמרא בשוקא וקרא על נפשיה ושנאתי אני את החיים ודמך ליה בשלמא

ר’ הונא אמר ויהי האדם לנפש חיה ועשאו מכורן עבד בפני עצמו דאין לא לעי לא אכיל על דעתיה דרבי הונא דאמר רבי הונא נתנני ה’ בידי לא אוכל קום דאין לא לעי ביממא לא קאים בליליא

Ecclesiastes (Koheles) 2:17-19

I hated life, for all that is done beneath the sun is evil, for it is all unrealized potential and frustrated ambition. I hated all my labor that I toiled beneath the sun, for I will leave it to a man who will come afterwards. And who knows if he will be wise or foolish, but he will control all (the fruits of) my labor and of my (efforts to gain) wisdom beneath the sun; this too is unrealized potential.

Midrash Rabba Koheles

I hated life. Amiknatron sent an anonymous letter to the Emperor Hadrian in which he wrote “If it is because we are circumcised that you hate us, what about the Arabs who are also circumcised? If it is because we keep the Sabbath that you hate us, what about the Samaritans who also keep the Sabbath? It must be that you really hate only this nation. The God of this nation will exact punishment from you.”

Hadrian, in response, decreed that whoever wrote this letter should reveal himself because the emperor wanted to give him something. One Jew went and identified himself as the letter writer. The Emperor announced that he would remove the Jew’s head. But first he asked: “why did you say this?” The Jew answered: “So you should free me from three difficult burdens.” Hadrian asked: “what are they?” The Jew answered: “My soul needs feeding every morning and afternoon and I haven’t got anything to give it. It is the same with my wife and children.” Hadrian responded: “Since you live a difficult life, I will leave you alive.” The Jew said about himself: “I hated life.”

It once happened with a particular gluttonous individual who worked six days a week, but on the Sabbath he had nothing left over to eat. What did he do? Once, he donned his most expensive clothing, climbed to his rooftop, jumped off and died, saying about himself: “I hated life.'”

People said to Rabbi Hoshiya: “The men you trained and appointed as judges are known to drink wine in public.” Rabbi Hoshiya refused to believe the rumors. Once, while walking, he came across his judges drinking wine in public and said about himself: “I hate life.” Nevertheless, he died in peace of natural causes.

Rabbi Huna said: “And the man was as a living soul” (Genesis 2:7) – that is, he was created as a slave to himself that if he does not work, he will not eat. This fits with another statement of Rabbi Huna, who said: “God has placed me in my own hands, I cannot stand” (Lamentations 1:14) – that is, if he doesn’t work by day, he will not survive the night.

Giving Up

What can bring a man to the point of hating life, even preferring death? In the case of King Solomon (the author of Ecclesiastes/Koheles), it seems to have been the thought that all that he had achieved through his intellectual and practical efforts might easily be spoiled after his death. In other words, his lofty goals for the spiritual future of the young Jewish nation and its temple – Solomon’s true life’s work – might be forever lost through an unqualified successor’s careless mismanagement.

The most powerful and respected king of his day, drowning in a sea of despair.

Yet more startling is has Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet begging God to take his life (I Kings 19:4). Here too, the cause of the prophet’s despair would appear to have been his apparent failure at his life’s major task – to rescue the Jews of the Northern Kingdom from the brink of spiritual destruction.

And now we see Rabbi Hoshiya. His role in developing and managing promising young Torah scholars – and helping them mature into fully qualified judges – was doubtless a source of great satisfaction to him. He certainly saw himself as a crucial link in the timeless chain of tradition starting at Mt. Sinai and stretching into the distant future. He was a full partner with God Himself in furthering the very goal of creation.

But in one crushing moment, everything collapsed around him. His protégés had deeply disappointed him. What kind of a Torah scholar could stoop to public drunkenness? If this is how they behave, just how serious about their difficult and heavy tasks are these judges? How could Rabbi Hoshiya have misjudged them so completely? What else had he missed?

What each of these men shared was the realization (or at least the fear) that the thing most central to their identity as human beings was lost.

Now let’s look at the other two stories from our midrash:

What bothered the fellow so much that he actually tried to commit “suicide by Hadrian”? Chronic poverty. Now I don’t think that he and his family were in danger of actually starving (otherwise, why would he need Hadrian to kill him: just wait for hunger to do the job). It rather seems that he simply couldn’t achieve the lifestyle he felt he needed. Seeing no obvious way out of his predicament, he gave up.

The second individual seems to have suffered from an addiction (at least when addiction is defined as the inability to refrain from a given behavior despite knowing its painful consequences). Unlike the first story, this fellow quite possibly earned a good living (there is certainly no evidence to the contrary). His problem was that, no matter how much he acquired during the week, he couldn’t restrain his desires. He had to consume whatever lay to hand…and without delay. Apparently unable to combat his addiction, he too gave up – and even to his very last moment felt compelled to envelope himself in whatever luxury remained (his suit, as it turned out).

Now the fact that our midrash chose to group these three stories together suggests that they share a basic, underlying theme. But just what does Rabbi Hoshiya (and, by extension, Solomon and Eliyahu) have in common with those two materialistic men? We’ve already noted that Rabbi Hoshiya considered his guiding role in the Torah lives of younger scholars to be critical to his sense of self. We don’t believe ourselves presumptuous to say that material pleasures were as central to the identities of the “heroes” of the first two stories as Torah and Torah-tradition was to Rabbi Hoshiya.

It certainly doesn’t surprise us to learn that those aspects of our lives that we consider important can deeply affect our satisfaction with ourselves. What might be revealing, however, is the possibility that life can seem so empty in their absence that it can lead to desperation. We should also note the kinds of things that can so completely define a person: material consumption on the one hand, and Divine service and Torah accomplishments on the other. Perhaps one of the key messages of the midrash is that even failure comes in different flavors…and if you’re going to fail, isn’t it better to have gone down struggling for something eternal?

Rabbi Huna’s Summary

As we’ve seen, there is certainly a great deal to learn from the verses themselves. But that (along with the three stories of the midrash) is not the whole picture. Solomon has taught us that big goals can – and sometimes should – grow to dominate a man’s life. We need ambition. And he also warned us how destabilizing failure can be.

However, Rabbi Huna needed to add one extra detail. We may never allow failure to overwhelm us to the point that we become dysfunctional. Our lives are entrusted to us by God, but they are not ours to relinquish. The antidote to despair (Rabbi Huna seems to say) is faithfully fulfilling our God-given responsibility to ourselves and to those who rely upon us. Thus, our first friend’s error was allowing his material dreams to obscure the very real and practical debts he owed his family. The addict should have kept up his struggle – even if it would in the end prove futile. Rabbi Hoshiya should have remained engaged with his judges so he could better guage their progress…and then, once he did lose the first group, set about training another.

Never stop. Never lose sight of what brought us here in the first place.

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