- What has been will be, what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
- Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for Adonai has already approved what you do. Let your garments always be white, anddo not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the person [literally, woman] you love, all the days of your life of breath that [God] has given you under the sun, all the days of your breath. For this is your portion in life and in your toil that you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. . . . (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)
A recent cartoon in The New Yorker shows a man and a woman sitting at a dinner table. "Honey," says the man, "Just let me know if I ever say anything new." In another cartoon, a similar couple looks at vacation brochures. The woman asks, "Where do you want to worry that we're spending too much money this summer?"
So goes the old saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." We get stuck in patterns. We replay the same old drama. We repeat our old scripts and find ourselves in familiar struggles over and over again.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, which we read during Sukkot, comments on this phenomenon: "What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes. . . . All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full. . . . All things are wearisome, more than one can express. . . . What has been will be, what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:3-9). In other words, everything that we are doing has been done before and will be done again. There are forces in this world that are much bigger than any of us, and there is nothing that we can do to change the rhythms of the planet.
Consider how much energy, effort, and money we dedicate to fighting the effects of time. Alan Lightman, in his book Einstein's Dreams (New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2004) has us imagine alternative concepts of time, worlds in which time runs differently. In one such scenario, time flows more slowly the farther you get from the center of the earth. People build their homes in mountains and on high stilts in order to get the best advantage and to age as slowly as possible. They avoid going to lower elevations, because "with each downward step time passes just a little bit faster" (ibid, p. 30). Of course, with all of that rushing and isolation, calculating and worrying, the people end up growing old before their time.
In another chapter, people live forever. However, there are unforeseen consequences of eternal life. For example, " . . . grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts, great-great-aunts and so on, back through the generations" (ibid, p. 119). On the one hand we may think, "What a gift!" On the other hand, in this environment, children never escape from under the shadows of their parents. Lightman explains, "When a man starts a business, he feels compelled to talk it over with his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents ad infinitum. . . . And when a daughter wants guidance from her mother, she cannot get it undiluted. Her mother must ask her mother who must ask her mother, and so on forever. Just as sons and daughters cannot make decisions themselves, they cannot turn to parents for confident advice. . . . Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole, no person is free" (ibid, pp. 120-121).
The problem is not only that in this imagined world there would be too many people to consult, but also that the advice would be different, less profound. Surely some of the wisdom that we acquire with age comes from our awareness of life's finitude. In other words, we cannot cheat time. For those who seek to control time, as in Einstein's Dreams, this realization may be thoroughly depressing. For the rest of us, it can be thoroughly liberating.
Koholet teaches us to accept the natural rhythm of life. There is "a time to be born, a time to die, a time to sow, a time to reap" (Ecclesiastes 3:2), and so on. There is nothing that we can do to turn one into another. Time moves forward, with or without our permission.
With this in mind, we can read Kohelet as inspiring and redeeming. The theme of Kohelet is Haveil havalim, hakol havel (Ecclesiastes 1:2), which is usually translated as "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity," or "all is futile," or "all is absurd." However, as I learned in a class taught by Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, the words "vanity," "futility," and "absurdity" are actually interpretations that reflect biases on the part of the translator. The literal meaning of hevel is "vapor" or "mist." It is a mixture of air and water, the very substance of our lives. Haveil havalim, hakol havel, "Breath, breath, all is breath." The inference brings us back to the centrality and omnipotence of God. When God created people, the body and the brain were just the beginning. We did not become living beings until God breathed into our nostrils nishmat chayim -"the soul of the Divine," the breath of life. This is what makes us alive. Hakol havel, "everything is breath." Breath comes and goes in an instant, but that does not make it insignificant; rather, every breath is significant.
Kohelet teaches us to concentrate on the matters that we can control without losing sleep over those we can't. We are off the hook from trying to change the rhythm of the seas and the stars. We are off the hook from trying to find the fountain of youth. We are off the hook from trying to find the magic insight that is going fix all of humanity and create a struggle-free life. Rather, we can live in the moment and infuse each breath with meaning. Kohelet says, "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for Adonai has already approved what you do. Let your garments always be white, and do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the person you love, all the days of your life of breath. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). In other words, live every single moment under the sun that God has given you.
Even those days when we sit at the dinner table not saying anything new, let us learn to embrace and enjoy the natural rhythms of life. Let us cherish all of the stages of life, even as time passes before our very eyes. Let us read Kohelet as a book of freedom, finding in it personal liberation. And let us breathe in deeply, knowing that haveil havalim, hakol havel.
By the Way
- [This passage of Ecclesiastes [chapter 1] reminds me of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is doomed by the gods to push a huge boulder up a mountain, only to have it slip back down to the bottom, where he starts to push it up toward the summit all over again. When I first heard this myth in high school, I assumed with my fellow students that this was a metaphor for hell. Maybe so, but when I look at this myth as I approach the half-century mark in my journey, I see it as an apt description of most of my life. And my life is not hellish at all. (Rami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999], p. 111)
- [Ecclesiastes 1:8 reads: "All things (or words) are wearisome; a person cannot express (how much). The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."] Does Qohelet launch an attack on traditional wisdom at this point? The choice of illustrations certainly fits such an interpretation. The quest for the right word for the occasion is futile, the observations that arise from experience are incomplete, and the "hearing" is insufficient. (James Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987], p. 66)
- What patterns in your life make you feel like Sisyphus? Is it possible to find meaning in those struggles that never quite get resolved?
- What could it mean that Kohelet finds even wisdom (an important Jewish value!) to be fleeting? Is there such a thing as absolute wisdom or does wisdom also change with the years and the generations?
Mari Chernow is assistant rabbi at Temple Chai, Phoenix, Arizona.
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512