"I find more bitter than death the woman… One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those I have not found. (Kohelet 7:26-28)"
What is Shlomo haMelech expressing here, in these blatantly misogynistic terms? What is this doing in a book which also contains the happier advice to a man, “ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבת Enjoy life with the wife you love?” What is this doing in a book attributed to a man whose mother taught him the Eishet Chayil, a ballad to the mighty Jewish woman? What is this doing in Tanach at all?!
Realize that in an entire Tanach filled with complex and conflicted human beings, Shlomo haMelech may well be the most complex and conflicted.
• Shlomo is the great son and heir of Dovid haMelech and Batsheva, builder of the Beis haMikdash and the wisest of all men.
• But Shlomo also flouts the Torah’s laws governing kings, marries princesses for political purposes and oversleeps the first day of korbanot in that new Beis haMikdash he had built.
According to the gemara, the sages even taught that Shlomo was excluded from Gan Eden in the next world, until a voice from Heaven rebuked them!
There is a pattern to Shlomo haMelech’s troubles, and the gemara lays it out for us:
The Torah mandates that a king may not take too many wives, lest their needs distract him. The gemara says that Shlomo defied this rule, confidently arguing אני ארבה ולא אסור, I will have many wives and I will not be led astray. In the end, Tanach says, נשיו הטו את לבבו, Shlomo was led astray.
The Torah mandates that a king not accumulate horses, lest he go back to Egypt to find more. Again, the gemara says that Shlomo confidently defied this rule, arguing, אני ארבה ולא אשיב, I will have many horses and I will not go back to Egypt. But in the end, as Tanach reports, Shlomo returns to Egypt for horses.
The gemara reports that Shlomo sought to extend his reign to the mystical realms of King Ashmedai, and when Shlomo presumptuously imprisoned King Ashmedai, he ended up losing his throne for a time.
Shlomo haMelech was a victim of his own success - he was the smartest man in the world, he had all the wealth one could ever imagine, he was an incredibly powerful king, and he knew it. Knowing all that about yourself works well as far as boosting your confidence, but it doesn’t help in a marriage.
From the beginning of the Torah, we are taught that marriage is about seeking partnership with another person who will complement your talents, your ideas, your energies.
HaShem says, לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, It is not good for Man to be alone. R’ Ovadia Seforno explains, “Man is inadequate when he is alone.”
So HaShem decides, אעשה לו עזר כנגדו, I will make Adam and Chavah as two parallel people. They will be opposite each other, in the way that the two platforms on a balanced scale are opposite each other - they will complement each other.
But in order for that ideal relationship to work, the husband and wife must accept that they are parallel, equal if not equivalent, that on the other side of the scale is a man or woman who will both support and challenge you, who will call you on your errors as often as he will agree with your assertions.
If you’re already the smartest, already the wealthiest, already the most powerful, it’s hard to accept someone else as your equal and complement.
Batsheva, Shlomo’s mother, knew that this would be her son’s challenge, and so she advised him to seek a woman of strength, a woman who was self-sufficient, a woman who would speak Torah and who would be garbed in strength and dignity. Her advice is recorded in that poem we know as Eishes Chayil, the 31st chapter in Mishlei. But Shlomo never found a woman he saw in that light; he married a thousand women, but he never felt he had found an equal.
In the passage I quoted at the outset, in which Shlomo records the futility of his marriages, Shlomo is critiquing himself, not the women he married. When Shlomo says, “Even one woman in a thousand I did not find,” we hear pain in his voice as he renders this verdict on the lonely life he had lived. Shlomo was never able to follow the advice he gave us, ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבת, to enjoy life with a beloved spouse.
Obviously, Shlomo haMelech’s verdict offers a practical lesson for our marriages, but it is also a practical lesson for our relationships in general. If we feel that other people have let us down, or that we haven’t found people who are worthy of our respect, then perhaps it’s time for us to look not at others but at ourselves:
• Are we humbly aware of our own defects, our own flaws, and the ways in which other people could provide that which we lack?
• Or do we feel, consciously or subconsciously, that we’re as close to perfect as we need to be, that we know and understand things pretty much on our own?
Arnold Palmer tells the following story about the 1961 Masters tournament: “I had a one-stroke lead and had just hit a very satisfying tee shot. I felt I was in pretty good shape. As I approached my ball, I saw an old friend standing at the edge of the gallery. He motioned me over, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Congratulations.’ I took his hand and shook it, but… On my next two shots, I hit the ball into a sand trap, then put it over the edge of the green. I missed a putt and lost the Masters.”
Palmer added, “You don't forget a mistake like that; you just learn from it and become determined that you will never do that again.”
The same holds true for relationships - having now eavesdropped on Shlomo haMelech’s self-analysis, having come to understand the importance of humility for a successful relationship, let’s make sure that we make our putt, and so merit to fulfill Shlomo’s happier advice, ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבת, to enjoy life with the people we love.
1. I feel some discomfort with this derashah; I am uneasy assigning fault to the heroes of Tanach, even those the gemara describes as it does Shlomo, and even the not-really-a-fault confident self-awareness I ascribe to Shlomo here. But, at the same time, I feel this is an important lesson for people, and the biblical and talmudic record of Shlomo's career provides the ideal illustration. I sincerely hope this does not make me a מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה.
2. The gemara on Shlomo's almost-exclusion from olam haba is Sanhedrin 104b; the gemara on his rejection of the laws of monarchs is Sanhedrin 21b. The run-in with Ashmedai is Gittin 68a-b.
3. Arnold Palmer's story comes from The Nineteenth Hole, by Carol Mann; I found it, and along with it an interesting site for derashah anecdotes, quite by accident at http://www.sermonillustrations.com.