To everything – turn, turn, turn / There is a season – turn, turn, turn…” Who doesn’t remember the verses from Ecclesiastes that the Byrds made into a hit song? Admit it, you’re humming it right now. And, while the song popularized this passage of the Jewish Bible, the book’s opening stanza turns most people off: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). Making matters worse, some translations replace “vanity” with “futility” or, lousier yet, “meaningless.” Who wants to read a preacher’s sermon that starts with “everything is meaningless”?
Unfortunately for Ecclesiastes, that translation completely missed the point he was trying to make. “Kohelet,” the Book’s Hebrew name — meaning “the Gatherer” — is the quintessential Jewish spiritual teaching on impermanence. And impermanence is vastly different from meaninglessness.
The word that gets mistakenly translated as “vanity,” “futility” or “meaninglessness” is “Hevel” in Hebrew. It means “breath” or “vapor.” “Vapor of vapors, says the Gatherer, vapor of vapors, everything is vapor.” It teaches that everything is empty of any solidity, of any real substance, of any kind of permanence.
All we are ever building throughout our lives, careers and relationships is as impermanent as sandcastles. “Sandcastles upon sandcastles, says the Gatherer, sandcastles upon sandcastles, everything is but sandcastles.”
Not unlike Nietzsche’s sandcastles parable. Here’s the short version: Three people are at the beach building sandcastles. The first person builds theirs tentatively, focused on their artistry, knowing full well that the tide is coming (yet in denial) and still stunned when it inevitably does return and erases all that they have painstakingly constructed.
The second person falls into nihilism. “What’s the use?!” they say. It will all be erased anyways, leaving no proof that any of their creations ever existed. And so they do nothing, paralyzed with fear and sorrow.
The third person embraces Kohelet’s teaching on impermanence. Whatever time they have, they set out to build the most beautiful sand structure their talent and imagination allow them to build. They do it with abandon, with that impossible love that knows that everything is always already broken. They understand that we love because we love, we give because we give, we build and rebuild and rebuild again because we just do.
Rabbi R. Shapiro renders the Gatherer’s conclusion thusly: “Before all this, know that dust returns to the earth as it was, and breath returns to the Source that breathed it. Emptiness upon emptiness — said the Gatherer — everything passes away, everything is fleeting and as insubstantial as vapor. … And after all has been heard, the end of the matter is this: Faced with Reality; be in awe. Regarding right living; be diligent — eat simply, drink moderately, work meaningfully and cultivate love and friendship.”
Read more of the May 31-June 6, 2023 issue.