If you're scouting for summer reading, the book of "Ecclesiastes" does not jump out as a first choice. Still, it is what a study partner and I undertook over several recent weeks. My partner, Josh, as I'll call him, is the latest of three or four students from a well-known Jewish theological seminary whom I've met over several years. We have undertaken quiet, friendly but earnest Sunday afternoon perusals of parts of the Jewish Bible (Torah) and the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Kethuvim). I didn't choose "Ecclesiastes" (one of the Writings); that was Josh's idea.
Josh, who speaks in a strong baritone voice, is a smart fellow, married though young, tall and handsome too. (I identified myself as a single gay man from the start.) He comes from a rabbinical family and hopes one day to live in Israel. By then he will have spent the forthcoming year in Israel as a student and he will have completed a battery of rigorous courses at the Manhattan seminary. That June, he will go through a beautiful ordination ceremony and emerge as Rabbi (which, after all, means my teacher). When I asked whether his wife approved of moving eventually to Israel, he said, "It was her idea!" For her it will mean joining a large extended family in that land.
My list of aspirations doesn't include ordination as a rabbi, so what's behind this studying for me? It sprang a few years ago from an effort to gain greater spirituality as a senior Jew and, truth to tell, to substitute for actual synagogue attendance, laggard at best. If the Lord approves that tradeoff is, of course, beyond my knowledge. I have to hope so.
In the quiet of my apartment, my cat keeping an open ear nearby, Josh and I have been reading aloud and chewing over the Writings. We exchange lots of give-and-take and "What did you think of that?" that I love and in which, I'm glad to say, I get equal vote. It's not so different from what rabbinical students do in their seminary, great mental exercise and, for me, lessons in writing.
"Ecclesiastes" is different from narratives in the five books of the Jewish Bible. It contains the reflections of Koheleth son of David, who looks back on a long life. It is where is found the famous poem, "A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven--a time for being born and a time for dying," etc...
Reading Koheleth is not a lesson in optimism. Futility is a word he employs often: "Amassing riches is a futility and an unhappy business" and "A lover of money never has his fill." But he has amassed wealth and offsets the gloom: "One should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun." One is grateful for the candy.
Hoping to gain some ideas as we plowed through "Ecclesiastes," I looked at Josh, young enough to be my son, even grandson, and I realized that he had chosen a somewhat unlikely text but one that might help ease my senior years, so far at the other end of life from his. What I found most memorable from Koheleth resonates best with a senior: "The day of death is better than the day of birth...the end or a matter better than the beginning of it." Did Koheleth believe these because he, himself, wrote "at the end of a matter"? They are nuggets an older man is glad to grasp.
Though he has come to me as teacher, Josh and I have learned together. He and his wife will soon embark on his assigned year in Israel, and I will try to gather together some ideas we reached from our Sunday afternoons, which I'm sorry to see end. For now, those are mellow hours that conclude with a smile and, occasionally at least, an approving meow from my cat, who follows out guest to the door,
*Stanley Ely writes about religion and study in his book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir" in paperback and ebook.
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