There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it,
surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but
wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.
(Ecclesiastes 9:14-15)

The custom of reading Kohelet, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, on Sukkot is at least as old as the
beginning of the 13th century when it is first mentioned by Rabbi Avraham of Lunel (Sefer Hamanhig, p.
416). In describing the practice as followed in Provence, France at his time, he writes that it was read
before the Torah reading on Shmini Atzeret. Many are more familiar with the Ashkenazic tradition of
reading it on the Shabbat of Hol Hamoed Sukkot.

This is a wonderful, and sometimes quite challenging collection of wisdom that was once thought to be
the words of King Solomon himself. However, modern biblical researchers usually date it as one of the
younger books of the Hebrew Bible, composed sometime between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE.

I find it best to concentrate on just one chapter, or an even smaller literary unit, each year without
trying to read through the entire book. This year, my focus is on this particular passage:

There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it,
surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but
wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. (9:14-15)

We’ve just experienced the High Holiday period in which each of us tried to reach deep down inside of
ourselves and discern the truth. We tried to remember the truth about what has happened in the year
that has passed and what role we played in those events as well as the role of others.
Remembering, authentically remembering, is the key to a better world. We are all constantly grappling
with this issue of memory and pseudo-memory, news and fake-news, in our own lives as well as with
regard to our interaction with TV, newspapers and social media. This ancient wisdom highlights the
perennial problem of human nature not giving credit where credit is due.
Another way to understand this bit of wisdom, found in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 32b), steers us
toward a more personal way of understanding the tale:

Rav Ammi son of Abba also said: What is the meaning of, “There was once a small city”?
“A small city” – refers to the body;
and “with only a few people in it” to the limbs;
“and a powerful king came up against it, surrounded it” – to the Evil Impulse;
“and built a huge siege works against it” – to sin;
“Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise” – to the Good Impulse;
“and he saved the city by his wisdom” – to repentance and good deeds;
“But nobody remembered that poor man” – for when the Evil Impulse gains dominion,
none remember the Good Impulse.

Here we get a glimpse into what will later develop into what has been called Mussar literature. The constant struggle between good and bad as played out in each individual’s psyche. It replaces the more classic dichotomy of battling gods in ancient times, and later, the war between God and the People of Israel on one side, against the enemies of God and the People of Israel, on the other.

While we certainly want to get an accurate report of what has occurred in the world around us, let us not forget that each and every one of us is constantly struggling with the truth. Perhaps we might take some time to deal more with the battle between good and evil within ourselves, than preoccupying ourselves with “us and them” issues.

Let us clarify to ourselves how we have come about the values we hold dear, honestly accessing that which has its foundation in truth and that which stems from clouded memory.

Shabbat Shalom u’Moadim L’Simha