The Book of Ecclesiastes:
Judaism’s Answer to Existentialism
In the foundation of jewish belief, there has always been a passion for meaning. The jewish people reflected on God’s purpose of history, nature, and every other aspect of life. And similar to the course of most civilizations, they’ve even questioned the most important idea: themselves. Once humans became self-aware we have asked “how did we get here”, “who created us”, and most important “why are we here”. The meaning of existence is a question humans will always ask. It is important for daily life because it gives purpose and direction. This question is even possibly the catalyst for the creation of religion and philosophy. Therefore, as all the largest religions have, Judaism also gives its own answer to this question. In the Torah is the book Ecclesiastes, which contains wisdom that not only that gives reasons to ponder our fleeting lives, but refutes a common reaction, and gives its own solution of the meaning of life.
The beginning of Ecclesiastes is a segment that contain general statements regarding the timelessness of the universe. The first statement comments on the futile existence of humanity, claiming “Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures forever”. A line that coldly declares that human mortality does not allow for any permanent effect in an eternal world. The universe will pertually continue, while every human will die and any trace of a person will eventually be lost forever. The following lines continue in the same pattern. An element of nature such as “the sun”, “the wind”, and “all streams” will ceaselessly continue their course until the end of time. All of these further represent the presence of humanity is meaningless in the grand scheme of time. The final axiom, “[A]nd there is nothing new under the sun”, reveals another depressing characteristic of humanity: there is no originality and humanity will always remain the same. While a person might concoct their own “creation”, in reality it will never be their own. Due to the extensive history of civilized humans, at some time in history every idea have been similar or exactly made. Also, there is the fact that since we’ve had to be educated on almost every subject matter, everything we know and create can never be properly appropriated to anyone. All our information is stolen from another. Therefore, adding another reason onto the list of why life is pointless. However, it is not only a point regarding originality, but human behavior as well. No matter if the environment or circumstances are changed, humans will always behave the same. It’s as if we can’t control the fate of humanity because our descendents will alway make the same choices and mistakes. Thus, the book of Ecclesiastes argues due to our mortality, the eternality of the universe, and the repetition of human nature and knowledge, life has no meaning.
However, this argument for the futility of life may seem to only serve a pessimistic perspective, it will aid comprehension of Judaism’s solution. After confirming that human life is pointless in the previous sections, the Book of Ecclesiastes offers a possible idea and refutes this false resolution. Since there is no reason to give effort, many people’s counter to nihilism is hedonism. The hedonistic ideology is that since life has no meaning, one should spend their life pleasuring themselves. Even though the book provides this answer, it exposes the flaws by displaying a follower of hedonism reflecting his life. The hypothetical man said, “whatever my eyes coveted, I refused them nothing , nor did I deny myself any pleasure”. A sentence that perfectly summarizes the life a hedonist. But, when aware of the end of their own life, the person evaluated his life’s work as “everything was emptiness and chasing the wind.” The lesson from this short anecdote equates to the shallowness of greed. No satisfying meaning can be derived from a life serving to lustful desires. The analogy of “chasing the wind” perfectly exhibits the wasteful results of this lifestyle. Wind is just the movement of air, so humans cannot influence it with their bare hands. Thus, if one is chasing the wind, they are accomplishing nothing. So as a lifestyle to fulfill the meaning of life, Judaism classifies hedonism as a fruitless endeavor.
Considering why Judaism thinks life is meaningless and how it feels about certain approaches, Judaism’s answer is quite simple than one would think. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it states, “God has so ordered it that man should not be able to discover what is happening here under the sun”. So even if life has a meaning, God did not intend for humans to ever find out. Under God’s will, our job isn’t to interpret the operations our universe. So to be satisfied with life, it provides the idea that you should “eat your food and enjoy it, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart”. There isn’t a complex ritual or chant. Yahweh informs that simply appreciating life could lead to a contentful life. Eating your food and enjoying it is a metaphor for living life and cherishing it. Eating food is a normal everyday task, so what you’re enjoying is the mundane daily aspects of life. The lord compels to live and appreciate life.
Human lifespans in comparison to the timeline of the universe are nothing. We are microscopic stains in the tapestry of life. With such minute lives, trying to live life to its fullest would be the first solution, but in the prophetic oriented religion, Judaism, the solution is quite straightforward. As told in the book of Ecclesiastes, Yahweh does not want his people to know the inner workings of his world. Therefore, in this world without meaning, God believes valuing their lives will lead to a content lifetime. Your reflection at the end of your life shall not be empty, but wholesome.