A Jewish legend teaches that King Solomon wrote three books that were canonized in the Hebrew Bible. He wrote these texts at three different stages of his life; as a young man, as a fully mature and powerful adult, and as an old man. Each period of his life resulted in different genres and tone of his tomes. As these are considered “wisdom” literature each of the three books offers spiritual and practical instruction in playing the game of life and love in each juncture of a person’s life.
Though controversial about its inclusion in the TaNaCh (acronym for Hebrew words meaning: Torah, Prophets, and Writings) the Song of Songs, written in the King’s youth, is a beautifully descriptive, epic love-dialogue between two lovers. With graphic imagery evoking the Garden of Eden, with no direct reference to God, this epic love song was championed by Rabbi Akiva as the “Holy of Holies” of the biblical books. He interpreted Shir HaShirim as verbal intercourse between God and the People of Israel and therefore read deeply into its evocative language and perceived its mystical ecstasy. As this text is seen as love letters between God and Israel it is read during the festival of Pesach when God shows love for Israel by redeeming them from servitude.
In King Solomon’s mid-age he purportedly wrote the book of Proverbs. A book of 31 chapters, Proverbs tells us, “Let the wise man hear and increase learning. The understanding man shall acquire wise advice,” encouraging us to expand our knowledge. This book is full of pithy aphorisms whose advice mostly pertains to obeying the Commandments and the acquisition of wisdom and understanding. Proverbs refers to the Torah as the Eitz Chayim – Tree of Life and some verses of this Wisdom Book appropriately find their way into the liturgy of the Torah service.
Perhaps the most misunderstood book from the Hebrew Bible is Kohelet – Ecclesiastes. Allegedly written by the wise king in his old age, this wisdom literature, only 12 chapters, comes off as being incredibly cynical and defeatist in nature. The old king seems to recall the adventures of his own life and observes the actions of humanity and everything done “under the sun” and concludes that it is all vapor, mist, and breath that dissipates as quickly as it comes into being. Kohelet, the name by which King Solomon refers to himself, perceives that the effort and toil of humanity is meaningless, that it will never be remembered, that everything is recycled and there is nothing original; there is nothing new under the sun.
While it is easy to dismiss the book of Kohelet as the ramblings of an old fool-king, we should be aware that its inclusion in the 24 books of the Bible constitutes a claim, by the rabbinic body that canonized it, that there is significant and deep wisdom in this book. And so Solomon is portrayed as an experienced elder with the rational logic of detachment, practicality, and common sense.
The three phases of the King’s life parallel an ancient Indian or Hindu societal norm. In the formative years of a child, or young man, it was expected that he would be in school mode and along with his academic studies he would also learn a trade as a disciple of a master in their field. In the second stage of life the man would be expected to work at his trade and raise a family being a master himself in both realms. Finally, at the third stage of life the older man could anticipate an ascetic existence where he would leave his home and go confront the wilderness. With the assistance of a Guru, a spiritual master, he would strive to attain self enlightenment and a complete Cosmic consciousness. If the parallel is correct, in the Jewish model King Solomon represents someone who has achieved self enlightenment and his teachings in the Scroll of Kohelet represent the perspective of someone realized the highest spiritual level a human can achieve in this world.
The Song of Songs speaks to the experimentation of youth with love and learning. The book of Proverbs pertains to our productive and preventative application of the mitzvot, our sacred and secular responsibilities in this world. And the book of Kohelet acknowledges that while it is part of everyone’s experience to pursue “wind” while they are alive under the sun, and that in the “big picture” our lives and what we pursue are meaningless in the context of the constancy of the world and the rhythm of nature, the most important thing is to enjoy life and be a good person.
As the Song of Songs is associated with the spring festival of Passover, in contrast, the Book of Kohelet is linked to the autumn festival of Sukkot. The connection between the spring scroll of Shir HaShirim and Passover is almost obvious as the text is allegorical for the the courtship of God and the People of Israel. But the connection of Kohelet to Sukkot is not so clear.
Following the intensity of majestic Rosh HaShanah, commemorating the conception of the world and coronation of the Creator, and the solemn self-denial and contemplative confrontations of mortality on Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a temporary oasis, a shelter for our raw vulnerability. But the shelter we build on this harvest festival is not strong and sturdy giving us the assurance that our protection is complete, rather the sukkah is temporary, fragile, and precarious; just like life. In a sense it is a reality test. If we can bear the weather in our booths, eating, sleeping, or sitting, perhaps we can handle almost anything that life hands us.
And so we read Kohelet especially on Sukkot, at the beginning of the year because it acknowledges that anything can happen under the sun, but in the coming generations all will be forgotten and repeated. As we have no control over the time or season for all the things that will occur in our lives, we channel the wisdom of King Solomon because we need the emotional distance to keep our inner balance and we must realize that like breath, everything dissipates. The only thing we can control or master is our selves, our reactions, our choice to accept our sacred and secular responsibilities.