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Ecclesiastes: 2:1-3

It turns out there’s a second chapter to this thing. Here we go:

[Ecc 2:1-3 KJV] I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also [is] vanity. I said of laughter, [It is] mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what [was] that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.

This is one of those places where the translation is not trustworthy, but nobody seems to agree on exactly what would be a trustworthy translation. Here’s the New English Bible:

I said to myself, ‘Come, I will plunge into pleasures and enjoy myself’; but this too was emptiness. Of laughter I said, ‘It is madness!’ And of pleasure, ‘What is the good of that!’ So I sought to stimulate myself with wine, in the hope of finding out what was good for men to do under heaven throughout the brief span of their lives. But my mind was guided by wisdom, not blinded by folly.

Morris Jastrow says (persuasively) that the writer uses ‘expressive slang’—what I’m curious about is whether the voice when talking to himself is different, perhaps slangier, than the voice when talking to us. We’re heading into a bit where I would expect the speaker to be doing King Solomon voice, that is, to be using more magniloquent language to underscore the comparison. My Hebrew isn’t good enough to figure that out, and of course the KJV wants to use magniloquent language all the time, and the NEB is trying to eschew magniloquence whilst maintaining reverence, so they are not interested in picking up those resonances. Ah, well.

I don’t feel like going further into the troubles of wording at the moment—there are some things that are clear. He begins with his conclusion in this section as he does in the book as a whole, a rhetorical technique that seems more appropriate to bad academic papers than Scripture or poetry, I suppose, but effective anyway. He is careful to say that his epicureanism is a philosophical quest (v’libi nohayg bachochmah, yet acquainting my heart with wisdom) rather than mere indulgence. He emphasizes the temporal or earthly nature of his quest, both with the under heaven contrast and his insistence that all our days are numbered days; I also think the what doeth it from verse two is intended to be read as earthly and temporal. He asks what pleasure does, rather than what it is; he wants to know what people should do, not what they are.

I also found the phrase l’chah-na provocative. That’s the Go to, now of the KJV. Victor Reichert draws the reference to Isaiah 1:18: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD …, as what he terms a call to action. Only for Kohelet it’s kind of a call to inaction, isn’t it? I mean, if it’s a deliberate reference to Isaiah (and a deliberate echo of the lech-lecha to Abraham as well, perhaps?) then it seems to me an ironic one. He’s talking to himself, anyway—how does addressing yourself with heavy irony fit in with the theme of humility? Heavy irony as a rhetorical tool does not seem out of place in Kohelet’s toolbox.

On an entirely different note, the Sages of Blessed Memory in the Midrash Rabbah are committed to the idea that the writer is in fact King Solomon, and are further committed to the (to my mind crazy) idea that King Solomon was a Good King and admirable and great and not to be despised. The text to me clearly indicates otherwise. Wise, yes, but also clearly a Bad King, and more important Bad-for-the-Jews. Anyway, this takes some interpretation. R. Phinehas insists that the pleasure Solomon seeks is the pleasure of studying Torah, of course, but why then is it vanity? R. Hezekiah said (in the name of Simon b. Zahdi) that all the Torah which you learn in this world is ‘vanity’ in comparison with Torah in the World to Come; because in this world a man learns Torah and forgets it, but with reference to the World to Come what is written there? I will put My law in their inward parts. So that solves that problem.

I am making fun of the Sages of Blessed Memory, of course, but doesn’t their discussion have an echo of (my interpretation) of the opening poem of this book? The greatest pleasure is in Torah, yes, but remain humble even in Torah study, for you will learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget—in contrast with the Divine, whose Grasp is as great as the Reach. I can bring that echo back into the verse to ask—if pleasure and good times are vanity—a puff of air and a handful of emptiness—for humans who live out our numbered days under Heaven, what is it for the One whose days are not numbered, and whose days are not underneath Heaven? Can we imagine a Divine Laughter that is not mad, and a Divine Mirth that does, in fact, accomplish things?

Is that the essence of Creation?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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