I WAS PREPARING a teaching on Kohelet for Sukkot and it occurred to me how pertinent this message was for this time of year and maybe even our culture in general. It reveals the psychology of the writer – presumed to be King Solomon in his old age. While many view this book as depressing, there is a positive message in it as well. When I first read Kohelet, I thought of the poem by Percy Bysse Shelley, Ozymandias:
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Like Kohelet, this ancient king had built magnificent edifices and acquired great wealth; and in his vanity had a statue erected to boast of his accomplishments. Yet nothing remains. Kohelet is saying the same thing. For all he has amassed and accomplished says “all is vanity.” Unlike Ozymandias, Kohelet comes to the conclusion that what we can do in life is to value the moment and be in awe of G-d.
Today, for many, being in “awe of G-d” means emulating the characteristics we attribute to G-d. The Jewish concept of G-d is one who is just and merciful; qualities we affirm during Selichot and throughout the High Holidays. Our tradition also teaches us about welcoming the stranger “for remember we were strangers in a strange land”; we are encouraged to feed the hungry and clothe the poor, basically to be compassionate, to have empathy and consider the other.
Alas, our culture today does not often reflect those values but tends to embrace those of Ozymandias – the boastful braggart whose “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor” clearly read those passions. That is what remains – not his “mighty works.” While we don’t know how Ozymandias felt at the end of his life, it seems that Kohelet even while bemoaning that which was corporeal and fleeting still maintained his faith and believed in good works.
So we have a choice. Do we seek to acquire and amass mighty works for ourselves and sneer with contempt like Ozymandias, or do we attempt to recognize we are mortal like Kohelet and know the best we can do is to make our present meaningful?
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.