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Ecclesiastes 2:26

Ecclesiastes 2:26:

For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Well. I can’t make this work.

I can’t make it work with my unconventional reading of the first two chapters, and I can’t make it work with the surface reading, either. Kohelet was just saying that everyone loses in the end—in v. 14, he specifically said that one event happeneth to them all. Now he is talking about the difference between the sinner and the man who is good in the sight of the Divine. Surely this is vanity and vexation of spirit.

So. Let’s start with H.L. Ginsburg, who translates the first part (kee l’adam she-tov l’fanayv natan khakhmah v’da’at v’simkhah) as to the man, namely, who pleases Him He has given the wisdom and shrewdness to enjoy himself. That’s a bit of a stretch, honestly: it’s pretty clearly wisdom and knowledge and enjoyment, but we could certainly interpret the Divine Gift as a bundle of wisdom‘n’knowledge‘n’joy, inseparable each from each, such that it is wisdom to have knowledge and joy, and a joy to have wisdom and knowledge, and true knowledge is the worth of wisdom and joy. It’s a single gift, then, and is contrasted with that given to the sinner.

For the sinner, I’ll go to Robert Gordis, who is often interestingly stubborn in his gloss: he points out that the word we use for sin (khayt) is more accurately translated as shortcoming, the word (as I believe I have talked about during one or another year’s Days of Awe) deriving from the word used when an arrow misses the target. In this case, he argues, what is intended is the statement that the khotay misses the mark so fully as to spend his time gathering and amassing, rather than in wisdom, knowledge and joy. “The pious moralist declares that the sinner suffers; Koheleth, that he who suffers is a sinner. Conventional wisdom declares that the sinner is a fool; Koheleth that the fool is a sinner.” That’s awfully tempting, isn’t it? In the rest of the chapter, Kohelet rants about the inevitability of death, and that inheritance goes astray, and here he says that the khotay who amasses wealth does not please the sight of the Divine. All good. And how do you please the sight of the Divine? By appreciating the gift of wisdom‘n’knowledge‘n’joy and not doing all of that upgeheaping.

Only it is very clear in the text that what is gathered by the sinner is given to the one who is pleasing to the Divine. And, um, that’s really not what Kohelet was on about earlier. And seriously, I have a very hard time reading this text, either today’s verse or the chapter as a whole, as saying that you should enjoy wisdom and knowledge so that the sinner will give you all his stuff. I mean. To me, that sounds like vanity and vexation of spirit.

I’d even be inclined at the moment to read this whole verse as a kind of sarcasm: the Divine gives to the pleasing folk this amazing gift of wisdom‘n’knowledge‘n’joy, and to the schmuck he gives the desire for moneygrubbing without surcease or satisfaction, and—what? You want the schmuck’s stuff, too? Now that is wind-chasing.

And maybe that’s what the verse is saying, to cap off the whole chapter: the whole concern about what happens to your stuff when you are gone is the essence of futility, a particularly fruitless kind of ghost-wooing, when you are yourself the ghost you are trying to woo.

Or, more likely from looking at the actual historical text, somebody who found the whole body of the work outrageously blasphemous stuck in a verse about how everything is all right, really, and Kohelet never touched this particular verse at all. But that seems like cheating, somehow.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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