Eccle­si­astes and the Search for Meaning

By – September 27, 2023

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.

Discussion Questions

One of the most enig­mat­ic books in the Tanakh is Eccle­si­astes, or Kohelet, writ­ten by the wis­est of all men, Solomon. In this mas­ter­ful and mean­ing­ful explo­ration of time­ly and time­less mes­sages, Eri­ca Brown draws on a wealth of wis­dom from both Jew­ish sources and the broad­er world of schol­ar­ship. She includes well-anno­tat­ed foot­notes and always keeps her eye on the com­plex­i­ty and courage of the human condition. 

The book of Ecce­le­si­astes pos­es ques­tions about life’s mean­ing and the seem­ing futil­i­ty of humanity’s strug­gle to not only sur­vive but also thrive in a world plagued by an onslaught of man­made and nat­ur­al chal­lenges. While King Solomon does com­ment on the van­i­ty and futil­i­ty of life, Brown reveals Solomon’s opti­mism, his hope that each per­son can find mean­ing and pur­pose in life. She draws on the per­spec­tive of Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks, who said that the ever-present word hev­el does not mean van­i­ty, but breath. Solomon doesn’t find life mean­ing­less; rather, he believes that our mor­tal­i­ty cre­ates the con­di­tions for our hap­pi­ness. Because life is short, every moment is precious. 

Ecce­le­si­astes and the Search for Mean­ing is a gift for our gen­er­a­tion. Brown infus­es one of the most revered books of scrip­ture and Jew­ish wis­dom with refresh­ing and rel­e­vant lessons for find­ing hap­pi­ness and mean­ing in life.