Kohelet and Iyov

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Orange Trophy
01 Oct 2007

Holy and Secular – The plant manager had just finished a very successful meeting. He leaned back in his chair in satisfaction, and looked at the New Year’s card that he had received. “Our best wishes for having been chosen as the Man of the Year – from your colleagues in the manufacturer’s association.” He thought to himself, “There can be no doubt that the recent years were very successful. I accomplished everything that I wanted to do. My bank account has just reached the hundred million dollar mark, I am famous throughout the world, and my factories are well known and appreciated by all the others.”

But in spite of all this, the manager began to feel an emptiness that spread within him. A deep inner voice began to ask, “What do I get out of all this? I have achieved everything I wanted, but in reality I have not achieved anything at all. What can I do with a hundred million dollars? I have a huge house, and my family and I have a wonderful annual vacation abroad. What meaning does any of this have? What good does it do for me to be recognized as Man of the Year? What do I get out of the card congratulating me and all the recognition that I have achieved?”

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“I increased my actions, I built houses and planted vineyards… I gathered gold and silver… I built and added on to everything that came before me in Jerusalem… I did not refrain from obtaining everything that my eyes desired… And I have turned to look at everything my hands did and all the labor that I did, but everything is vain and meaningless, and there is no advantage to anything under the sun.” [Kohelet 2:4-11].

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Two of the twenty-four books of the Tanach struggle with difficult questions of existence. Iyov shows a struggle against tragedy and loss, while Kohelet struggles against a feeling of emptiness in the face of riches and material success. Surprisingly, Iyov’s answer to these questions is similar to the answer in Kohelet. Both books relate to the role of man in the world and his relation to the Almighty.

The book of Iyov explains to us that we are not able to see the broad picture. Our viewpoint is narrow, like that of an ant, and there is no way that we will fully understand G-d’s righteousness. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik explains that the conclusion of Iyov is that we cannot ask why something has happened, but rather how we should react to what has happened. Therefore, Rabbi Soloveitchik says, G-d responded to Iyov only after he prayed for his colleagues. As long as Iyov continued to search for the reasons for his own personal tragedy he remained in the dark. Only when he began to utilize the forces of his soul for a meaningful purpose – prayer for his friends – did G-d respond to his own needs.

Kohelet gives a similar answer to a man at the other end of the scale of success. If man is the main thing, it is not clear why he labors so hard. In any case, he will die and all of his wealth will disappear. Two hundred years from now, nobody will remember you or what you did. All the beautiful accomplishments and social honors will have flown away with the wind. If man relates only to himself, none of his labors under the sun have any meaning whatsoever.

Only if we understand that we are part of a Divine process does everything take on a different color. Even if our name will be forgotten and our wealth will be dissipated, the large picture of which we are a part will remain. We are not required to finish the labor, but we are not free to refuse to continue our role. We work and create in the world as part of a process of mending it. This is at its basic level, when G-d placed man “to work there and to guard over it” [Bereishit 2:15]. Man was not created “in vain, to sit idly by” [Yeshayahu 45:18], but at a higher level, “to serve your G-d… to observe the mitzvot of G-d and His laws” [Devarim 10:12-13].

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“In the end it is all clear: Fear G-d and observe His mitzvot, for that is all that man is worth” [Kohelet 12:13].

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il). Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to dan@zomet.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.