Rashbam: On Ecclesiastes (Shoftim)

In Rashbam’s commentary on Parshat Shoftim, he digresses at one point to compare literary structures with a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes (or Kohelet, in Hebrew). I find his take on the lines in Ecclesiastes interesting and so instead of a direct look at the Torah portion, I thought we’d entertain the ideas of Rashbam on very different material.

Ecclesiastes chapter 1 builds a case that humans have a raw deal in the mysterious and frustrating universe.

1:2 Utter futility! – said Kohelet – Utter futility! All is futile!
1:3 In what way is a human superior?! …
1:4 One generation passes on and another generation comes. But the earth remains the same forever.
1:5 The sun rises, and the sun sets – and glides back to where it rises.

1:9 Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun.
1:10 Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, “Look, this one is new!” – it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us.
1:11 The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.

Quite dreary. Kohelet’s main point seems to be that nature’s cycles are endless and repetitive and no individual will be able to accomplish anything that will make an impact on history. Rashbam however sees it slightly differently.

“In what way is a human superior?! In fact, he is worse off than everything [else created]. For (1:4) “A generation passes on and a” different “generation comes.” This is because children do not look just like their parents, so they, (1:11) “the earlier ones, are not remembered.” On the other hand (1:4) “the earth remains forever the same” as it was during the six days of creation. So also does the sun. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

Rashbam subverts what Kohelet appears to be doing and suggests that the futility is not due to human generations being just like each other but in fact precisely the opposite – unlike the rest of nature, which beautiful replicates and endures, each human generation “looks” different. It is change, and especially change that erases a generation from memory as well as appearance, that underscores human woe.

Rashbam clearly did not understand evolution, geological transformation over time, or climate change. But I do think his comment brings us an interesting question – what is more existentially nerve-wracking: the idea that attempts at change are futile, or the idea that attempts at preservation are futile? I personally would seek a middle ground, but for the sake of argument which would you choose, if forced to make a decision?

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.