It may come as a surprise to some people that there is a book in the Tanakh that seriously contemplates whether all of life is one grand waste of time. Well, there is such a book and it is called Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew). This odd-sounding Greek word is a relic from the days when the standard text of the Bible was written in Greek. Ecclesiastes means ‘church’ or ‘preacher’, a questionable choice of name when one considers the context of the book.
Ecclesiastes, along with the book of Proverbs, is part of the so-called Wisdom Literature. Jewish tradition attributes both these books to King Solomon (Kohelet is considered a nickname for Solomon). Thus they date from almost 3,000 years ago. Needless to say, academic scholars reject this tradition out of hand and date both works to the Hellenistic period of intense interaction between the Greeks and the Jews following the division of the empire of Alexander the Great into three separate kingdoms. This puts the date of writing at some time between 300 BCE and 150 BCE. Scholars detect a decidedly Greek tone to both works. Wisdom, meaning practical advice for leading a better life, was a Greek specialty and hardly fit in with the tribal histories, the legal codes, and the prophetic messages of most of the Bible. In addition, Ecclesiastes, in particular, is rather pessimistic throughout its long and almost futile search for something worthwhile in life.
The writer, Kohelet, opens his work with the epitome of pessimism, ‘Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. It’s hard to imagine a more depressing opening sentence to a book. Kohelet goes on to explore various possibilities of worthwhile avenues to pursue (pleasure, wisdom, wealth, etc.) and ends up rejecting them all.
Somewhere around the third chapter he begins interspersing little tidbits of advice, some clear and some rather obscure, among the expressions of futility. This chapter begins with the famous expression (3:1-8): ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven - a time to be born, a time to die…’ Following this (3:11-12), ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time; also He has set the world in their hearts so that no man will find the work which God did from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in his life’ These wonderful observations appear almost as passing thoughts in the midst of all the futility. The last half of the book gradually shifts to a succession of these proverbs in a seemingly random order. As the reader approaches the end of the book, he or she is probably wondering whether there will be some ultimate response to the worthlessness of it all. As late as seven verses from the end (12:7) we see a repetition of the ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ complaint. Finally, in the second to last sentence, we find this puzzling conclusion (12:13): ‘In the end, (when) everything is heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is all of the man’. What do those last four words mean? What on earth is the message of this book?
The Hebrew word hevel is usually translated ‘vanity’. However, in modern English the word ‘vanity’ means something else entirely. It refers to the false sense of pride we all fall victim to at times out of a desperate need to feel good about ourselves. Hevel is more accurately translated as ‘emptiness’. Its frequent appearance in Ecclesiastes reveals that even in Biblical times, profound questions about the meaning of life were in the air. What is the point of anything? Why should we struggle to do anything? To survive, to enjoy, to accumulate wealth, to have comfort, to understand – it’s all going to go up in smoke in the end. The wisps of this smoke are the emptiness that Kohelet laments. It’s not even mere emptiness, it’s emptiness of emptiness. There is a nagging feeling that even the realization of emptiness is empty.
Nevertheless, there is life, and life has its beauty. Every single thing has its time and place. Every activity that we involve ourselves in – birth, death, killing, healing, building, destroying, crying, laughing, seeking giving up, speaking, silence, love, hate, war, peace – they all have their function and they all are necessary in some manner. We may not understand why all the many paths we pursue are essential, but that doesn’t make them any less essential.
When summed up, all these human activities give us an arena to feel some purpose. They give us joy, and a way to be good. But how is it that a person or a society can take all those contrasting needs and produce joy and goodness out of the mess? We usually end up with more bad than good, more pain than joy, for the simple reason that the hate, the war, the crying, the giving up, are so much easier to produce than the love, the peace, the laughter, and the seeking. The search for the secret formula for joy and goodness is the search for meaning out of the emptiness of emptiness.
To this problem a simple answer is provided. ‘In the end, when all is heard, fear God and keep the commandments, for this is all of the man’. Without some ultimate cause, we are nothing more than animals struggling to survive. But animals don’t have to think about why they survive. We do, and that very question empowers us with a drive to find the answer.
However, when the dust clears, there is no reason, no reason at all, for going on, for surviving, for striving for joy or goodness, for accomplishing, other than the unsettling or reassuring feeling that something greater than us has created us to do so. This realization, in whatever form it takes, in whatever image of the deity one imagines, is the fear of God.
For Jews, the Jewish image of God compels them to keep certain commandments listed in the Torah. It is these laws and customs, in whatever form they morphed into over the centuries, that constitute God’s way of communicating the secret formula. They may not make a heck of a lot of sense, or they may be all that profound to the high-tech-gadget-numbed mind of today, but there is no avoiding the existential hole they fill up. Without them, or without God’s will compelling us in some moral and spiritual direction, we are all glorified animals, large assemblies built around DNA, a mumble-jumbo of sub-atomic particles, dust in the infinite and pointless universe. With them, with obedience to God’s will, we matter, and what we do matters.
This idea, coming at the end of the book of the Bible that most openly asks the question of what the purpose of life really is, in a sense sums up the Jewish response to life’s apparent meaninglessness. It is meaningless unless one injects it with meaning. This is accomplished by fearing God and saturating one’s life with the doing of the commandments. This is really the fifth item on that list we saw in an earlier section from the book of Deuteronomy that explicitly asked what God asks of us. Doing the commandments was the final goal on that short list.
When all the dust clears, making our lives matter is who and what we are. This is all of man. Without this, what are we - products of natural selection, a blip on the screen of a 15 billion year long explosion? All of our striving, our struggling, our loving and hating, every bit of pain, every feeling of joy - is emptiness - unless we fill it with some ultimate meaning. Such fulfillment can only come from a belief that meaning must originate from somewhere else, and not from our own situation. Natural selection and other biological processes may be mechanisms for evolutionary change. But they can only provide the thinnest of veneers for why we feel meaning in our existence. And they give no clue as to the source for that meaning. In fact, when taken to their limits, they declare unequivocally that there is no source, and thus, there is no meaning. This is where God comes in. Some may say all God does is to plug up a ‘gap’, an existential ‘god-sized hole’ in the mind. But there is no greater need for God than just that. Understanding this need, being aware how God fills it, makes us human. This is all of the man. This is who we are and who we can be.
There’s a lot of stuff we do in the course of a normal day that is productive. Getting out of bed, bathing, eating healthy, going to work, helping people out, staying fit, catching up on the latest whatever…it’s all in day’s work. If we’re raising a family we have other highly valuable things we do, like taking care of kids, fostering a loving relationship with a spouse, putting the needs of others before our own. There are those who have really altruistic lives with careers or commitments devoted to helping out those who really need it. Some spend their time engaged in thinking, in creating, in healing, in protecting, in providing, in entertaining, in self-accomplishment. Life has a million and one opportunities to do something worthwhile. Every one of these things has its time and place and its worth. They give us and others fulfillment and joy, and they have some inherent goodness. Life is not worthless.
But every one of those people doing those things can find more to life. They can do exactly what they have been doing, with a little twist. It is such a little twist that others around them might not even notice the difference. But they might. They can take some of those activities, or maybe all of them, and do them with a conscious awareness that God - whatever that may mean to them – in some way demands/urges/hopes that they use their innate human powers of spirit to act. This could be a kind of exercise, a spiritual exercise. It is an exercise to inject a sense of God into the mundane things we do all the time. This exercise transforms everyday humdrum life into life that is filled with meaning. It transforms every one of us from a mere product of mechanical process of evolution into a soul created in the image of the divine.
This exercise is not limited to hard-core believers. Every manner of person from the frustrated drop-outs of some mainstream religion to new-agers to card-carrying atheists can get in on the act. So you don’t believe in the God of the Bible – but you do believe there is some source for meaning and purpose in life, don’t you? Call it Mother Nature, call it the Moral Imperative, call it the superego – it’s there and it commands you to be who you could be. Is web-surfing or social networking really what you want to be spending your time doing? Isn’t it all rather empty? To be all that you can be is what God asks of you. It is who you are.
Food for Thought
Awareness of God seems to be a common thread in almost all of these Jewish answers to the big question. If awareness of God is so crucial to our lives why is it that we so rarely sense it and put so little effort into imbibing it into ourselves?
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