Ecclesiastes – Chapter 9

The Tortoise and The Hare?

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Solomon continued to contemplate things. He considered the ways of the pious and wise, and the things people do that can endear them to G-d or antagonize G-d, though most people are willfully ignorant of such things. The same thing eventually happens to both the righteous and the wicked, the pure and the impure, those who offer sacrifices and those who refrain, those who freely make vows and those who take them quite seriously. (Rashi gives numerous examples. The righteous Noah and the evil Pharaoh-Neco were both injured in their legs; Tzidkiyahu and Samson were both blinded, though the former broke an oath and the latter took oaths seriously, etc.) This seems to Solomon to be one of the greatest injustices of the universe, because when people see this, they say that it doesn’t matter whether one is good or evil and it encourages them to persist in their evil. They live their lives this way and go to the grave unrepentant.

Life is great because as long as one is alive, he can change his ways. A live dog is better than a dead lion. (Solomon learned this lesson the hard way, when he was permitted to feed his dogs on Shabbos, but not to move the body of his father, King David – see Talmud Shabbos 30b.) The living know that they will eventually die and can shape up, but regrets after one dies accomplish nothing. The foolishness people loved, the wisdom they scorned, and the things they did that provoked G-d – all of these will not endure to help them after death.

The wise, however, can eat and drink happily, secure in the knowledge that G-d is pleased with their actions. A person should ensure that his deeds are always pure (compared to white garments) and that his reputation should be pristine (compared, as elsewhere, to oil). A man should enjoy life with his wife, who is a gift from G-d; the combination of honest work and family life will keep a person out of trouble. Do whatever mitzvos come your way, Solomon says, since you won’t have the opportunity to do so after death.

Solomon resumed his examinations of mankind’s ways and he saw that the race does not always go to the fastest runner, nor the battle to the mightiest warrior. The wise do not always have food, nor wealth, and eventually all die. (Again, Rashi provides us with several examples. For example, neither Asahel’s great speed nor Avner’s military prowess saved them when their time came.) A person doesn’t know when it’s his time; we’re like fish on a hook or birds in a trap. People similarly get trapped by sudden calamity.

Solomon observed the following, which made a huge impact on him: there was a small city that was surrounded by a mighty army. There was no way they could overpower the invaders, but a poor wise man saved the city. Afterward, however, the people of the city continued to disregard the wise man as a person of no importance. Solomon observed that brains are better than brawn, but the people disregard the humble sage. The words of the wise, however, carry more weight when they are whispered than the words of a ruler of fools do when they are shouted. Wisdom is better than weaponry; furthermore, a single sinner who deviates from the plan can do a lot of damage and lose the battle.

In the above story, the city metaphorically represents the body and the poor wise man is the good inclination. Even though the good inclination saves us when we listen to it, a person’s nature is to disregard it the next time the situation arises.

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