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Difficult verses & Ideas in Kohelet/ Ecclesiastes


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Av 2, 5780
Rabbi, please, can you help me understand the difficult scriptural verses below where I have a question on each verse (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 7:16-20): v. 16: "Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself?" Q1. Does it mean that King Solomon share the idea that "A Little evil can bring great good" and no need to keep to righteousness at the detriment of survival? v. 17: "Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time?" Q2. Does it mean that some degree of wickedness is allowed as a righteous one, but, foolishness is an abomination? v. 18: "It is good to grasp the one, and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes." Q3. Does it mean righteous people can also be greedy? v. 19: "Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city." Q4: Why are so many wise people poor and not to even talk about having the might and influence of a ruler? v. 20: "Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins." Q5. Why then do rabbis teach as to be righteous, however, there is none righteous?
In fact, our rabbis teach that this book of Kohellet can be easily misunderstood (especially when learned in translation!), so it's good that you ask. In short: Q1. vs. 16: One must be careful not to "overtly" and publicly show external signs, dress and actions which "boast religiosity", & especially not be self-righteous, and similarly, don't invent new commandments which "I think should have been commanded" (which is serving one's self, not serving God). Obviously, it's bad not to be righteous, but rather just be righteously humble. Similarly, we all know people who are "overly wise", and neglect common sense. Q2. vs. 17: We must be careful not to have mercy nor show righteousness towards the enemies of Israel, terrorism, etc., but that's the time to use our "wicked" side, as did King David & all the biblical heroes in the "war against wars", even though it should usually be subdued. Q3. vs. 18: There is a time & place for every trait (as demonstrated above), whereas in your example, there are times to be "frugal" (but the term "greed" always has negative connotations). Q4. vs. 19: God has many complex ways of giving each and every one of us, that which is subjectively best for us. But in general, the biblical heroes whom we are meant to emulate, are well-rounded and not meek weaklings, having, in addition to righteousness and Godly traits, also physical strength and wealth (and for women: beauty), for "The wisdom of the weak is scorned and his words aren't heeded" (ibid, 9, 16). Over 2,000 years of exile, the Ideal Jew was lacking, but today, with our return to Israel and independence, we must return to the original: "Healthy soul, in a healthy body". Q5. vs. 20: We strive to be as righteous as possible, knowing that perfection for man is the strive for perfection.
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