I want to talk about ספר קהלת, which we read today, שבת חול המועד סוכות. It is a unique book in תנ״ך, for an interesting reason. When we think about philosophy, about understanding the world, there are two fundamental questions: what and why. “What” is the question of what is real (ontology) and how do we know that (epistemology). There’s none of that in תנ״ך; some of what we call Kabbalah is מעשה בראשות, which touches on that subject. “Why” is the question of the purpose of creation and our place in the universe, and thus how we are supposed to act. תנ״ך deals with this all the time, but never in a “philosophic” way. There’s no questioning. We assume the answer right from the start. For example, the three books called ספרי אמת have similar sentiments:
Kohelet is the only one that starts with the question. It ends up in the “right place” (it is, after all, a book of תנ״ך), but only at the end:
Rabbi Shulman, based on Rav Medan, gave a year-long course on קהלת , breaking it down into a 4-way argument between the נהנה (the aesthete, who values pleasure), the עמל (the one who values work and effort), the ירא (the one who fears G-d) and the חכם (the one who values wisdom). Each destroys the other’s arguments, always with the point that גם זה הבל. Death makes everything pointless. Nothing lasts.
The introductory paragraph sets out the problem:
In Rabbi Eiseman’s loose translation:
This metaphor of “under the sun” as the physical world reminds me of Aristotle’s view of the “sublunar” world, the world we live in, under the perfect spheres that control (in an astrological sense) it.
I like quoting that because it is so completely wrong; the rationalist view that Rambam espouses (“the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown”) is not an effective way to understand even the physical world. But as metaphor it is fine.
Each voice becomes fainter and fainter as the ירא is left the only one talking. The only thing that gives meaning to life in the face of death is the idea that there is a higher purpose (this is not the same as עולם הבא; that argument does not appear directly).
Rabbi Eiseman’s loose translation:
All of the other things—pleasure in the physical, effort, and wisdom (in all areas of human endeavor)—have there place but only in the context of the the ultimate purpose, יראת ה׳. Note that this is not a logical, philosophical, answer to the problem of ethics, but an emotional one. Having יראת ה׳ allows us to not despair, to go on with life despite the inevitability of death.