The book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally read during Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, is the subject of Erica Brown’s new book. Dr. Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and a noted thinker in Jewish studies, Jewish education, and leadership. Her newest book weaves together insights from each of these areas of expertise, putting a new spin on reading an ancient text.
In the preface, Brown explains her exegetical approach, which includes both traditional commentary and the “work of contemporary philosophers, psychologists, artists, novelists, and others because Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] is both very ancient and strikingly modern in its themes … ” This approach makes sense, given that “Ecclesiastes” means “gatherer” in both Hebrew and Ancient Greek. The introduction explores Ecclesiastes’s role in the Hebrew Bible at large, as well as the book’s literary structure, history of canonization, and authorship.
Brown devotes the rest of her book to taking a closer look at each of Ecclesiastes’s twelve chapters. In the process, she often hones in on specific precepts. Chapter three of Ecclesiastes begins with this well-known verse: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1). Brown opens her own third chapter by likening this verse to Salvador Dalí’s famous painting of melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory. She suggests that Dalí understands time as a force that “haunts and taunts humans constantly.” The author then walks readers through Ecclesiastes’s approach to measuring time, which marks both the positive and negative milestones of one’s life (Eccles. 3:1 – 8). She concludes by connecting these verses to “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a 1960s folk song written by Pete Seeger. It was born out of the singer’s frustration about the rejection of his protest songs, and quickly sold to two bands.
The epilogue considers why Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot. Known in Jewish liturgy as “the time of our rejoicing,” Sukkot may seem antithetical to Ecclesiastes, whose message is so somber. Yet Brown suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. She quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] does not find life meaningless, futile, mere vanity. That is an error in translation. Kohelet finds life short.… Because life is short, every moment is precious.” In other words, reading Ecclesiastes on Sukkot encourages us to recognize joy in the present moment, despite the pain that is sure to come.
Artful and uplifting, Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning offers readers the wonderful opportunity to refresh their understanding of one of the Bible’s most underappreciated books.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.