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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless

Biblical Philosophy

Like fleeting cherry blossoms, almost sacredly ephemeral, the transience of hevel inspires Kohelet’s existential transformation. It encapsulates the beauty of sunsets, autumn leaves, or the Impressionist’s fascination with fleeting light. For it is precisely the transience of these things that moves us. By understanding the fleeting nature of life as a whole, Kohelet is no longer paralyzed by the burden of death. Life’s transience is dynamically transformed into a powerful motivational force: An urgency to live, to experience joy, to take action, and above all, to learn. The key to embracing transience, Kohelet discovers, is not to build monuments or expand empires, but to find the truth and inner understanding that flows from the eye-opening insight into the fleeting nature of it all.


Kohelet thus ends his quest by affirming the absolute value of mortal existence. In this way he resolves the existential frustration that tormented him at the beginning of the book: While Jewish tradition undoubtedly accepts the idea of an afterlife, it is never to be allowed to take over our consciousness. To the end, life itself must remain the focus of man’s existence.


An appreciation for joy grows steadily out of such an understanding. In truth, Judaism has long recognized its spiritual value. For example, the Talmud teaches that divine inspiration cannot be attained in a state of sadness, for it dwells only in a mind that has trained itself in joy.47 Many centuries later, the Hasidic sage Rabbi Nahman of Breslav taught that it is a great thing always to be in a state of joy. As Kohelet writes: “Rejoice, O lad, in your childhood, let your mind elevate you in the days of your youth… clear your mind of grievance and relieve your body of harm.…”48 To Kohelet, joy is not a consolation prize, or an elixir for life’s pains. Neither is it related to the promise of a life to come. Rather, joy is a value in and of itself; it is what it means to be truly alive.49

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