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Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Dvar Torah For Kohelet/Shabbat Hol Hamoed 5773.

“And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love that you make.”

Paul McCartney and the Beatles ended their iconic White Album with this seemingly irrelevant couplet of poetry that was part of a song called, appropriately, The End. What fascinates me is how memorable these two lines have become in the history of music and musical lyrics, as if their words were somehow the most important wisdom ever taught to humankind. Apart from their catchy tune, the Fab-4’s cute little harmony, and the one-finger piano work that backs them up, the words of this little poem actually pack a whole cosmos of ideas into very little verbal space.
Think about it. In sixteen words, we are taught that in the final analysis, the wisdom to end all wisdom is this: the quantity of love you, or I, or the world receives is directly related to the quantity that we give. Underlying such a grand idea is the even grander idea that all love and hate, peace and war exist in an almost karmic balance of cause and effect that is the result of free human initiative. You and I are at liberty to put out however much love we choose, and it is a firm universal law that we will get back what we gave in equal measure. The Beatles are perhaps unconsciously echoing here the classic Talmudic concept of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure.

These are great and powerful ideas, but their truth value is limited. The truth is that there are people who take plenty of love and a whole lot more from plenty of other people, yet who give very little love back; and there are lots of people in the world who give lovingly and unstintingly of themselves, yet who still get abused, neglected, or exploited by others. Love does not work its way magically into everyone’s heart, and relationships are often the settings for terrible heartbreak when the person who loves is repaid with selfishness and dismissiveness. Love is a fickle fellow, whether in the realm of romance, friendship, or life in community. It often needs to be balanced by other human endeavors and qualities to insure that in its absence people don’t get hurt. The end of the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that we are about to chant offers us its own final-analysis wisdom about how to achieve this balance. Look with me briefly at the very last verse of chapter 12, on page 78 of your Megillah books. There we read:
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: revere God and keep His commandments. For this applies to all mankind.

This verse, which you can see repeats verse 13, ends this biblical book that for a full twelve chapters counsels the reader that all human endeavor is vanity and worthless striving, and that there is ultimately no difference between humans and beasts. In the end we all will go to the same place: our deaths. Some Bible scholars assert that this verse was placed at the end of the book as a kind of pious conceit. The author or editor of the book knew that his ideas were threatening to his audience, so he pitched the book as a story about a man named Kohelet whose ideas were depressing and cynical. At the end of the book, the narrator comes back to tell us: “Whatever Kohelet said about life, in the end what really matters is for you to be a good person who does what God wants.” In this way, the author is able to distance himself from the same ideas he is trying to teach by placing them in Kohelet’s mouth and allowing the narrator to end the book on a note of simple, traditional faith.

Let me suggest that this ending of Kohelet can be understood in another way, as more than an appeal to simple piety. Having considered all of Kohelet’s tortured ruminations about the purposelessness and injustice of life, the narrator sits back and tells us the following: in the end, all of Kohelet’s ruminating might be very enlightening, but taken to excess it is paralyzing. Yes, life often is meaningless and cruel, yes, we humans are no different in some respects from all other animals with whom we share mortality. However, dwelling on these truths for too long doesn’t bring us any resolution, it just causes us to waste time that we could be using to make the best we can of the lives that we have. Moreover, while it sure would be nice for everyone to just love one another in the manner suggested by the Beatles, this is not going to happen because love is a fickle emotion that does not always translate into good behavior. In those moments when love is absent, fear God by doing what God wants and needs us to do to be menschen, decent human beings. In those moments when you don’t feel loving or loved, you still have to treat yourself and others properly because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.

This truth applies to all mankind.

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