Tonight I want to speak with you about the wisdom of King Solomon. Solomon, whose name Shlomo means “peace”, was one of the sons of King David. After David died, sometime in the 10th century BCE, Solomon ascended to the throne. According to the Book of Kings, which records the stories of Solomon’s reign, Solomon consolidated his father’s kingdom and reigned for forty years. He amassed great wealth and many wives and built the Temple in Jerusalem. Most of all, Solomon was renowned for his wisdom. In the Bible, and in many later Jewish folktales and mythology, King Solomon’s reputation for wisdom grows and grows – he becomes the very archetype of wisdom.
What might the wise king teach us on this Day of Atonement?
Our tradition assigns King Solomon, in his great wisdom, authorship of not one but three of the books in the Tanach. The three books could not be more different. King Solomon is said to have written Shir Hashirim – the Song of Songs; Mishlei – Proverbs; and Kohelet – Ecclesiastes.
The Song of Songs begins, “The Song of Songs, by Solomon son of David, King of Israel: Oh give me the kisses of your mouth, for your kisses are sweeter than wine… Draw me after you, let us run! Bring me, O king, to your chambers, let us delight and rejoice in our love, savoring it more than wine!” And that is just how it begins! The Song of Songs is an unabashed celebration of love. “Arise my darling, my fair one, come away!’”
By contrast, the Book of Proverbs elevates the pursuit of common sense, discipline and foresight. It opens: “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning wisdom and discipline, for understanding words of discernment, for acquiring the discipline for success, righteousness, justice and equity…for endowing the young with wisdom and foresight…listen to these words of the wise.” Hundreds of pithy proverbs follow, instructing us in how to live upright lives.
Then there is the third book assigned to Solomon, Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes, Kohelet in Hebrew, means the “Leader of the kahal, or community.” This book’s famous opening could not be more different than the previous two I have quoted. “The words of Ecclesiastes son of David, king in Jerusalem: A fleeting breath, a fleeting breath – everything passes…One generation goes, another comes, and the earth outlasts us all…All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place from which they flow, the streams flow back again.” “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Ecclesiastes preaches radical acceptance of life’s evanescence.
It makes my mind spin: not only are these three incredibly different books in the same Bible, but they are said to be written by the same person, who is the wisest of the wise! How did the same person produce all three books?
The rabbis reframe this question: they do not ask how could the same person produce three such different teachings, but when? That is, they determine that King Solomon wrote each of these books at different times during his life.
Song of Songs was the product of his youth, a celebration of the passion of love. “Hark! My Beloved! There he comes, leaping over mountains, bounding over hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag!” (2:8-9) “Oh, my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful!” (2:14)
The whole book is like that – glorious!
But as Solomon matured, other concerns and pursuits moved to the foreground: What is the path of the wise? Says Solomon: “She is a tree of life to all who grasp her” (3:18). How does one live an upright life? Says Solomon: “Pride goeth before the fall…better to be humble among the lowly than share ill-gotten gain with the arrogant” (16:18-19). When should one control one’s tongue, when should one express an opinion? Says Solomon: “To answer a person before hearing them out is foolish and disgraceful” (18:13). What makes a good and righteous leader? “Wicked deeds should be an abomination to rulers, for the throne is established by righteousness” (16:12). What constitutes an examined and worthwhile life? “A person’s truest self is like deep water, but a wise friend can draw it out” (20:5). The rabbis say that Solomon’s Book of Proverbs is the product of his middle years. These are the years when we build our lives, perhaps marry and raise children, develop our expertise and our reputation, plan and save for the future. The glories of passionate love move into the background, and we engage with the more prosaic yet essential challenges of navigating complicated lives, of raising families, of civic concerns. The Book of Proverbs, filled with wise counsel, reflects that changing focus.
And then Solomon gets old, and his perspective shifts once again. Where did the time go? And the old king reflects on all of the pursuits of his life. Each one was important in its time: the pursuit of love, the pursuit of accomplishments, the pursuit of wisdom. And yet…while he was doing all that pursuing, perhaps he was missing something, something that he only begins to understand now, now that time is getting short.
There is a tale about King Solomon, at the height of his powers, that tells of his transition into this broader point of view:
One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?” “It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy person looks at it, they become sad, and if a sad person looks at it, they become happy.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.
Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that, if a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy?” asked Benaiah.
He watched the old man take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, he knew he had found the ring. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew words on the gold band: “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment Solomon stood humbled as he realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust. Solomon wore that ring for the rest of his life.
And so Solomon writes his final book: to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. As one grows older, it is time to recognize the fleeting nature of life – here today, and gone tomorrow. With this awareness, may we savor as much of life as we are able. At one point we took the helm of the ship of our life; now we will let the river of time carry us on its current, and let it be. A time to every purpose under heaven, a time to strive and a time to accept. This is the wisdom of Solomon’s old age.
But remember: each stage of Solomon’s wisdom does not supplant the previous one, it augments it! All three of Solomon’s books are in the Bible, the latter do not cancel the former. When we hear the Song of Songs, even in old age, we thrill once again: the passion of love lives on in us, it is ours. When we hear the wisdom of Proverbs, even in old age, we immediately engage with its moral questions. This remains central. And when we hear old King Solomon – a king who had everything – reflecting on life’s fleeting nature, we can learn to hold it all – the passion, the striving, all our aspirations and all our foibles, every moment, in fact – that much more dearly, since we now understand that this too shall pass.
That is certainly the message of Yom Kippur: as we become aware of the unstoppable passing of time, and that our lives have an expiration date beyond our control, what path shall we choose into this new year that is being gifted to us? King Solomon’s wisdom, a layered understanding from across an entire lifetime, can guide us. This year, may you carry the passion of youth, the wisdom of maturity, and the acceptance and equanimity of old age all within your being.