Kohelet: Is Life Meaningless?

October 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Sukkot | 1 Comment

Modern sukkah in Israel

During the Jewish week of Sukkot, which began on Wednesday evening, the traditional reading is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. Sukkot is called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. In the Torah Sukkot celebrates the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), and the people live in fragile temporary shelters called sukkot. Today Jews still erect and decorate sukkot and hold rituals and meals inside them.

Modern sukkah in America

Although these huts only last for a week, we rejoice inside them. The author of the book of Kohelet (“Assembler” or “Assemblyman”1), on the other hand, would be depressed.

The famous opening of the book in the King James Bible translation includes “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word “vanity” here means doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. Futility is is indeed one possible translation of the Hebrew word haveil.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

          Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), hevel (הֶבֶל) = (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) evanescent, futile, absurd. (Also the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, called “Abel” in English. See my post Bereishit: Fairness and Free Will.)

havalim (הֲבָלִים) = plural of haveil. In biblical Hebrew, a plural noun immediately following the same noun in the singular noun is an intensive.  Thus haveil havalim means utterly evanescent, utterly futile, or utterly absurd, though it can also be translated as “futility of futilities”.

The poetic introduction of the book of Kohelet describes how the cycles of nature never change; the sun keeps rising and setting, the wind keeps going around, water flows down to the sea and then returns to its sources.

What will happen has happened before

            and what is done has been done before.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Kohelet 1:9)

After the introductory poem, the writer uses an exclamation that becomes a refrain throughout the book:

Everything is hevel and herding ruach! (Kohelet 1:14)

ruach (רוּהַ) = wind; spirit; mood.

In a world of futility and absurdity, trying to achieve anything is like trying to herd the wind.

The rest of the book reports the writer’s fruitless attempts to find meaning in life despite the fact that everything in this world, “under the sun”, is hevel.  Chapter 2 points out that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how much luxury or wisdom you acquire, you still die, and whoever inherits from you also dies.

Chapter 3 starts with the famous poem beginning:

For everything there is a season

            and a time for every business under heaven:

A time to be born

            and a time to die… (Kohelet 3:1-2)

Humans also follow natural cycles, making no progress and doing nothing truly new. God has determined everything, according to Kohelet, and humans die just as beasts do.

Everything goes to one place; everything comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Who knows if the ruach of a human rises to [what is] above, and the ruach of the beast goes down [what is] below, to the earth? (Kohelet 3:20-21)

Judging by the rest of the book, the writer does not believe the spirit (ruach) of any human rises to another life after death. Death is simply an ending that usually comes before the person has had enough of life.

And life, according to Kohelet, is depressing. The author points out the inevitability of oppression, evil, envy, and folly.2 Wealth may disappear, and power is no good because every boss is at the mercy of a superior, and even the king is at the mercy of the crops of the land.3  God might grant someone every desire, along with wealth, possessions, honor, 100 children, and a long life, but that person will still die before being sated with good things; we can never live long enough.4 God makes good and bad things happen; humans have little effect.5

Here is hevel that is done on the earth: that there are righteous ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the wicked, and there are wicked ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the righteous. I say that this, too, is havel. (Kohelet 8:14)

Life is absurd, rather than meaningful, in the face of the “problem of evil” (also called the theodicy).

Sukkah roof

Kohelet also points out that wisdom is easily brought down by one foolish act6, and that we have decay to look forward to as well as death7. Yet our fragility is part of the celebration during Sukkot; every sukkah is designed to let the rain in, and every morning we stand inside and conduct a ritual to encourage the rainy season to begin.

The most the author of Kohelet can recommend is to enjoy life despite its meaninglessness:

Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart since God has already approved your deeds. At all times let your clothes be clean, and oil not lacking on your head. Choose life with a woman whom you love, all the days of your life of hevel that God granted you under the sun, all the days of your hevel, because that is your share in life and your exertion that you exert under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do with all your power, because there is no doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [underground], where you are going. (Kohelet 9:7-9)

*

I cannot argue with Kohelet’s advice about cultivating physical pleasure, loving companionship, and zest in your work. Nor would I deny that everything decays and dies. But unlike the author of Kohelet I believe that new things do happen, and humankind is making progress in some areas, however slow and faltering. And I believe that even though life is too short and reality is absurd, life has meaning. What gives life meaning to me is the conviction that even though so much is out of our hands, we humans can, with conscious attention, change our own minds.

So what if all my thoughts and experiences vanish when my body dies? So what if the whole earth and all human achievement is lost forever when the sun explodes? What happens right now, this moment, is still meaningful if we make it so.

The book of Kohelet ends (excluding the postscript) in the same place it begins:

And the dust returns to the earth, where it was,

            and the ruach returns to God, who gave it.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

            Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 12:7-8)

Yes, everything is like a puff of air, evanescent and absurd—but some things still matter. And yes, as long as we live, we humans are herding ruach. But we are not always futilely trying to herd the wind. Ruach can also mean mood or spirit. Sometimes we learn how to herd our own moods, so we can rise above them. Sometimes we can even herd our own spirits, nudging our own souls to make our lives meaningful.

Then it is easy to rejoice inside the fragile, evanescent, absurd sukkot of our lives.

  1. The word kohelet ( קֹהֶלֶת) comes from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assemble. But the -et ending is a mystery; it might indicate either a female or a vocation, and it might mean a member of an assembly rather than the one who calls the assembly. See Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010, p. 337.
  2. Kohelet chapter 4.
  3. Kohelet chapter 5.
  4. Kohelet chapter 6.
  5. Kohelet chapter 7.
  6. Kohelet chapter 10.
  7. Kohelet chapter 12.
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  1. Toda Raba. As a friend here in Guatemala lays gravely ill, I find comfort in your words today, Melissa.
    In-deed we live in a fragile sukkot of our lives. May we rejoice each time that Ruach awakens us.
    Chag Semach


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