Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Shmini atzeret

“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
I have always enjoyed teaching the philosophy of the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). First, he has some fascinating ideas. And I disagree with almost every one of them. As a rabbi, I enjoy saying, “Learn Nietzsche and believe the exact opposite.” Let me share some examples, which will lead us directly to the Biblical book we will read this Saturday – Ecclesiastes.
Nietzsche’s most famous aphorism is “God is dead.” He taught that Western morality, based on a belief in God, is a slave morality. It was a way for the weak to try to control the strong. The New Testament saying that “the meek shall inherit the earth” was the opposite of everything Nietzsche taught. He believed that every human should strive to be an ubermensch (often translated “superman.”) In a world without God we should each try to become gods, creating our own morality, becoming powerful, and living lives of authenticity and passion.
This idea of a life of passion reflected Nietzsche’s love for ancient Greek mythology. He often compared two approaches to life, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo and Dionysus were both sons of Zeus. Apollo was the sun god, the god of rationality. His brother Dionysus was the wine god, the god of passion. Western thinking went wrong by following Apollo, from Socrates through Christianity, becoming too rational, too intellectual, too sterile. According to Nietzsche, we need to return to Dionysus, living lives filled with passion, allowing our emotions and instincts to overrule our intellect.
Nietzsche imagined a demon who approached each of us and said, what if you knew that the life you are living now is a life you will be forced to live over and over. This is often known as the myth of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche knew that most of us would be horrified by that thought. We would change our lives and start to follow our passions. Nietzsche’s ideas were not new. The thought that life is an endless cycle, and we must relive our lives over and over was part of the pagan world view. In fact, the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade wrote a book called The Myth of the Eternal Return. Everything that happens occurs over and over. Or to quote the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Jewish tradition teaches that the book of Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon in his old age, under the name Kohelet. The first chapter expresses in powerful poetry this cynical view of life. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (1:2) “One generation passes away and one generation comes, but the earth abides forever.” (1:4) “All the rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full, to the place from where the rivers come, there they return again.” (1:7) “That which has been, is what shall be; and that which has been done is what shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) My favorite of these cynical verses is “that which is crooked cannot be made straight.” (1:15) People cannot change, and world is simply a great cycle.
The Rabbis argued whether the book should be included in the canon. In the end, fortunately for those who love great literature, they included the book. It was based on a later verse in the book, “The end of the matter, after all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments.” (12:13) The positive ending allowed the Rabbis to accept the negative first chapter of the book. But the issue of a life as a cycle and eternal recurrence, whether expressed by the ancient pagans, the book of Ecclesiastes, or Friedrich Nietzsche, is foreign to Jewish (and Christian) tradition.
Judaism teaches that the crooked can be made straight. The world can change. Things are better than before. The world we live in today, with all its problems, is better than the world of half a century ago. And the world half a century from now will be better still. Study Nietzsche, then accept the opposite of everything he says.



“To everything thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

It is traditional to read the book of Ecclesiastes during the Sukkot festival period. This year the reading comes out Shabbat morning which is Shmini Atzeret. In my mind, Ecclesiastes is one of the most fascinating books of the Bible. Tradition teaches that King Solomon wrote the book in his old age, when he was searching for meaning in life. It is therefore worthy to read the book during the time of year when days are getting shorter and colder; winter is approaching.
The beginning of the third chapter is perhaps the most famous and most quoted section of the book. This is probably due to the Byrds 1965 recording of the Pete Seeger song Turn! Turn! Turn! It became a popular antiwar song during the height of the Vietnam War. But the original text is not necessarily anti-war. It says “A time for war and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:8) Of course Jeremiah later declared “peace peace but there is no peace.” We pray for peace but sometimes, sadly, there is no choice but to go to war.
The part I quote most often are the words “A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Often at unveilings I will say, “We have now mourned so-and-so for a year. There is a time to mourn and a time to dance. It is time to start dancing again.” Our tradition says there is a limit to mourning. Jewish law requires certain people to recite the Mourner’s kaddish for eleven months. When I see someone continuing to say kaddish for years and years, I try to convince them to stop. There is a limit to mourning. It is time to dance once again.
Related to this is the phrase that opens this section – “A time to be born and a time to die.” (Ecclesiastes 3:2) We have control over many things in our lives. But we have no control over when we are born, or for that matter to whom we are born. And most of us have limited control over when we die. In a tradition that embraces life, it is hard to deal with the inevitability of death. I have been with families in intensive care units at hospitals, trying to convince them that there is a limit to medical treatment. Our bodies were not meant to last forever. At some point we must learn to let go and let nature take its course. But it is hard.
There is one more passage from the poem that hits home with many people I counsel. “A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” (Ecclesiastes 3:5) Casting stones can be taken literally, or it can refer to anger. Gathering stones then would refer to forgiveness. There is a time for anger, and there is a time for forgiveness. Finding the balance is one of the great challenges of being a decent human being.
The second part of this phrase can apply to parents. When do we embrace our children? And when do we refrain from embracing our children? When do we come to their aid or rescue? And when do we leave them to their own devices? When do we interfere in their lives? And when do we step back and make them responsible for their own lives? When do we correct their mistakes? And when do we let them live with their mistakes?
I discussed this question with the young teens in my Torah Corps program. Most of them felt that their parents meddled too much in their lives. These are fourteen and fifteen year olds; their parents ought to be meddling in their lives. But what about twenty year olds? Thirty year olds? When do we embrace and when do we refrain from embracing?
The powerful poem from Ecclesiastes is really about finding balance in our lives. It is about walking the middle road. Tradition considers this wisdom literature. There is no piece of wisdom more pertinent than knowing what is appropriate at what time. Let us read the poem and seek the kind of balance King Solomon celebrated.

This morning we read the book of Ecclesiastes. Tradition ascribes this to King Solomon, cynical and suffering in his old age. He began by crying out about the hopelessness and vanity of life. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. There is nothing new under the sum.” No book of the Bible is gloomier.
Later the book takes a much more upbeat note. “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart, for God has accepted thy works.” It is a joyous acceptance and celebration of life. How can one man, in one book, have two such different views of life?
There are two views of the world. One is depressed, gloomy, hopeless, seeing life as sad and purposeless. Such people are angry, or to use the good Yiddish word, Verbissen. The second view is upbeat, finding joy and a sense of purpose even in little things. Such people find delight in the world. The first view drains the energy from the world. The second gives energy into the world.
There is a story told of the great violinist Yitzhak Pearlman (although I have also heard it attributed to Paganini.) Once, as he began to play at a recital, the string on his violin suddenly broke. He could have thrust his violin down in anger. Instead, he transposed the music and played beautifully on three strings. The audience broke into a huge applause. Afterwards someone asked him, “Why did you go ahead and play with a broken string?” He replied, “That is what an artist does – play with the instrument you are given.” So it is in life – we play with the instrument we are given.
I meet a lot of people who see the world as a sad gloomy place. On Yom Kippur I made a comment about those whose view of the synagogue is, “I went to get High Holiday tickets and had a fight with someone in the office. They were not nice to me. That is why I hate Judaism.” Several people came up to me after that sermon and asked, “Rabbi, were you talking about me?” Dennis Prager speaks of the broken tile syndrome. A person lies in bed looking at tiles in the ceiling. Ninety nine of them are aligned perfectly, but one tile is broken. The person keeps staring at the broken tile, is unable to get it out of his or her mind. Some of us just see the negative.
I see it in professional sports. It was the sixth game of the National League Championship between the Cubs and Marlins. The Cubs should have won that game. There was a fan interference, a Marlin got on base, and the energy seemed to fade from Wrigley Field. The Marlins went on to score eight runs, and win the Championship. (Note – As a Marlin fan, I will say that with this new energy, we went on to win the World Series!) Negativity takes energy out of a room, whether a family, a synagogue, or a baseball stadium.
I meet a lot of negative people in my work. Often they are people dealing with the sadness of growing older, with physical infirmities and family losses. Yet, how often does their own negativity contribute to their loss? On Sukkot, we take four species. The etrog has a beautiful smell and taste, and stays freshest the longest. The myrtle and palm branch have either taste or smell. The willow branches have neither taste nor smell, they give off no joy. And they are the first to dry up and whither.
It is a mitzvah in Judaism to look for joy in everything we do. We must look for reasons to compliment and not complain. We call this mitzvah hakarat tov, recognizing the good. As we begin our Yizkor services, we need to remember that life is too short. In the end, even King Solomon found joy in living. We can do no less.