We can agree that this is one of the hardest and most uncertain times we’ve lived through, but we must sustain a balanced and healthy mindset. Megillat Kohelet discusses finding balance in life, so I believe this is one of the best Jewish texts to study now.
Kohelet, Chapter 5, Verse 10, states:
As [a person’s] substance increases, so do those who consume it; what, then, does the success of its owner amount to but feasting his eyes?
Kohelet shares his feelings about being rich; he thinks that as a person gets wealthier, he doesn’t gain more peace of mind, but rather more people who consume his wealth, so the wealthy person just feasts her eyes on her wealth without actually taking it in and experiencing it in a deep way.
This verse resonated with me because many of us are shopping right now to gain some comfort and control. We’re all “feasting our eyes” on everyday items, such as toilet paper, paper towels and food. Buying these items may make us feel safe and give us the illusion that we can control the future. But Kohelet says that we’re just feasting our eyes; we’re not really experiencing something deep and lasting.
The next verse, 11, says:
A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep.
We may think that celebrities, doctors, politicians and others we look up to as leaders have an added benefit when it comes to living in quarantine, especially since most of these people have much wealth. However, this crisis shows that these people have the same issues we do. Even Boris Johnson, prime minister of the United Kingdom, was infected with the virus, demonstrating the reality of how powerful and harmful this virus is; it doesn’t care how wealthy or successful a person may be.
We also look to influential people for answers about and relief from the virus; however, no one—not even Dr. Fauci—definitely knows how we get out of our current situation.
Verse 11 states that “a worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat.” Kohelet compares a person who works for their small part in life to rich people who often have to worry about how others use their wealth. According to Kohelet, the simple worker can be a lot happier than a person who has to worry about her wealth.
As Kohelet implies, we can have so little, yet have much joy in our lives; it’s just a matter of our outlook. In our current situation, we can learn to be thankful for what we have and understand that we don’t need so much stuff. In addition, we may traditionally feel joy by being with our friends and colleagues on a daily basis, but now we may have to look for joy in ourselves and be happy with our own “sweet sleep.”
We also have to consider that many people have been laid off from their jobs, and this has led to over 30 million Americans filing for unemployment. Those of us who may not be experiencing these difficulties may not fully understand what it’s like for people who have been furloughed or fired and are dealing with financial uncertainty. We must be aware of and open to helping others who may not be in a place to support their families themselves.
When we look at Kohelet, we see that he isn’t saying being poor is ideal; he emphasizes the negative aspects of being rich but recognizes that each person should ideally have their own field to feed them and provide them with a living. In Parshat Emor, Chapter 23, Verse 22, we’re told what to do as owners of a field or fields:
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.
This verse talks about “pe’ah” and “leket,” “corners” and “gleanings,” two measures we take when owning a field to welcome and support with food the poor and the stranger. We read the Torah from start to finish every year, and we try to find meaning in every parsha. Sometimes we may struggle with connecting to stories that happened so long ago or ideas that seem old.
This year it’s different. During this time we can really connect with this part of the parsha, knowing that many people are struggling with their finances and getting food on their tables. Though Kohelet advises us to be satisfied with our field, the Torah restricts us from having an entire field to ourselves, and tells us not only to help our community’s poor but also the stranger, those people not directly in our communities. Not only does the Torah tell us to help the Jewish community, but the entirety of the world as well.
Reading Kohelet during quarantine has helped me balance my life in this unbalanced time, reminding me to keep my perspective. Connecting Kohelet to the other parts of the Torah—which we’re celebrating on Shavuot—also reminds me that we should always be open to helping others, even if we ourselves are in difficult situations.
Felicia Stendig is a student at The Idea School, class of 2022.