Megillas Koheles

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos, we read Megillas Koheles, so I present here an essay from the Maggid’s commentary on this megillah. Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 7:2): “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for this is the end of all man, and the living person should take it to heart.” The Maggid interprets this statement as a lesson about assessing the value of material bounty.
There is a common saying: “No one is wiser than a man of experience.” The message here is that it is easier to discover the true nature of something through direct experience and examination than through analysis and contemplation. Suppose, for example, someone wants to tell whether a certain dish has been salted. If he attempts to analyze this question through the laws of physics and chemistry, he will wear himself out and possibly also come to the wrong conclusion. But if he just tastes a bit of the dish, he will immediately find the right answer.
The same idea applies to assessing the value of material bounty. A poor person, who has never had such bounty, will find it hard to figure out solely by contemplation whether such bounty is good or bad. But a rich person, who has such bounty, can easily come to see that it is vain. Thus, if a poor person wants to determine, as easily as a rich man can, whether worldly pleasures have any substance, it seems he can do no better than to go to a house of feasting. He can put on nice clothes, go to the party, eat plenty of fine food, and drink plenty of fine wine or liquor. Then, when the party is over, he will see that he has gained nothing – he is just as bereft as before. From this result, he can extrapolate to all worldly pleasures, for they are all the same. When a person wants to assess the quality of a barrel of wine, he tastes a sample of it, and from this sample he can evaluate the entire barrel. Similarly, by experiencing a sample of worldly pleasures, one can evaluate them all.
This strategy is the obvious way to use personal experience to assess the worth of worldly pleasures. But Shlomo, in his great wisdom, points us to a better method. He tells us that it is better to go a house of mourning than to a house of feasting. We can bring out the idea behind this teaching with an analogy. Suppose a king has decreed that a certain man be stripped of all his possessions. The king’s officers can carry out this decree in two ways. They can take away all the man’s possessions and leave him in his home with nothing. Alternatively, they can leave the man’s possessions where they are and exile him to a distant province from which he cannot return. The second method is more reliable than the first. If the officers leave the man in his home after cleaning it out, he might not really be left bereft, for he might have hidden possessions the officers did not find. But if they send him into exile, they are sure to carry out the decree in full.   
Similarly, if a person goes to a house of feasting, he will find only a small selection of worldly pleasures. He thus may still be left in doubt – he might think there are other worldly pleasures that do provide real substance and genuine satisfaction. But if he goes to a house of mourning, he will no longer have any doubt. He will recognize that death is the end of every man, and that when a man’s life comes to an end, all his worldly pleasures come to an end as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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