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We're midway through the holiday of Sukkot, "the season of our joy," where it's traditional to eat even live in temporary shelters. In the synagogue we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). This year, in my shul, we're reading it over 4 days of the holiday, with 4 different people offering brief intros. This was mine:

I started my New York life in a punk band called Kill All Your Darlings, where I specialized in grinding out motorcycle and car crashes on my electric violin. I was less interested in any nihilistic attitudes that might have been behind punk, and more—much more—in the fun of simply reacting to the life around me (and making noise).

So it stands to reason that I would find the nihilism—or FAKE nihilism (it’s debatable)—of Kohelet exhilarating. Like blues, one of the mysterious things poetry can do is find euphoria in despair. It’s something that happens when we allow ourselves to skip past surface logic and respond to language and rhythm. Poetry is NOT just a way to say what could be said more succinctly or plainly. It isn’t a technical manual of pinned-down meanings, gussied up with moon-June flourishes.

Kohelet is poetry of an almost modern sort: chatty, observant, tongue-in-cheek, full of what the 20th-century poet Frank O’Hara might call quandariness. The language is compressed, strongly cadenced, evocative.

Kohelet does use plenty from the Bible’s poetic bag of tricks. Parallelism is probably the most notable, and we see it most famously in chapter 3, “a time to be born, a time to die” but throughout, there’s antithetical parallelism: good versus evil, wisdom versus folly, life versus death, and so on.

I think everyone can find a line or phrase that resonates. Certainly any number of writers have found inspiration—and titles: The Golden Bowl, The Sun Also Rises, The House of Mirth. Kohelet was the “truest of all books” to Herman Melville, master of ambiguity and contradiction. Thomas Wolfe, Wallace Stevens, U2’s Bono: major Kohelet fanboys. My favorite line is chapter 4 verse 6: "Better is a handful of quietness / Than both the hands full of labor and striving after wind." I’m haunted by the image of meditative peace versus the dead weight of civilization, maybe someone texting head down, running into pedestrians.

Haval havalim ha’kol havel. Usually translated “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” maybe we can think of the Hebrew havel... ha’kol havel, more literally, as poets would: “all is breath.” The poem is made of breath, the world was created with words, “poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.”

We’re about to read chapters 4, 5, and 6. My advice? Sit back and listen. Listen to the words in their exquisite trop, let them surround you and breathe to you. Don’t worry about consistency, about finding a coherent philosophy or theology, about believing or rebutting. As with any poem, if you hear something that speaks to you, the poem is a success. You’re NEVER required to restate or explain a poem.

“These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand: they are only meant to terrify & comfort.” —John Berryman, from Dream Songs
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