“Beautiful in its time”


I love and return to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) for its rhythms, loss, and joy; its searching and yearning; its ways of doubt.

I have written about the opening verses before, but lately I keep coming back to the third chapter, especially the ninth through thirteenth verses, and the eleventh in particular:

ט          מַה-יִּתְרוֹן, הָעוֹשֶׂה, בַּאֲשֶׁר, הוּא עָמֵל. 9 {S} What profit hath he that worketh in that he laboureth?
י  רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעִנְיָן, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לִבְנֵי הָאָדָם–לַעֲנוֹת בּוֹ. 10 I have seen the task which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith.
יא  אֶת-הַכֹּל עָשָׂה, יָפֶה בְעִתּוֹ; גַּם אֶת-הָעֹלָם, נָתַן בְּלִבָּם–מִבְּלִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמְצָא הָאָדָם אֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה הָאֱלֹהִים, מֵרֹאשׁ וְעַד-סוֹף. 11 He hath made every thing beautiful in its time; also He hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.
יב  יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אֵין טוֹב בָּם–כִּי אִם-לִשְׂמוֹחַ, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹב בְּחַיָּיו. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to get pleasure so long as they live.
יג  וְגַם כָּל-הָאָדָם שֶׁיֹּאכַל וְשָׁתָה, וְרָאָה טוֹב בְּכָל-עֲמָלוֹ–מַתַּת אֱלֹהִים, הִיא. 13 But also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy pleasure for all his labour, is the gift of God.


What does it mean that “He hath set the world (et-haolam) in their heart (belibam), yet so that man cannot find out the work (asher lo-yimtza ha-adam et-hama’asei) that God hath done from the beginning even to the end (merosh ad suf)”?

The word “olam,” as it appears in the the Hebrew Bible, does not usually mean “world”; it means something more like “perpetuity,” “the distant past,” “infinity,” or “the distant future.” It has to do more with time than place, or so I think. Here it does seem to mean “world,” but there could be other meanings as well.

So the verse might suggest that humans have to contend not only with the infinity of the world around them, but also with the infinity inside themselves. If they cannot know themselves from beginning to end, how can they possibly know the world?

Some people find this verse discouraging; I see it as hopeful, since in each of us, for the duration of our lives and even afterward, there is more than we know. There is more in others, too, than any of us can ever grasp or sum up.

What, then, explains the transition to the next verse, the declaration that there is nothing better than to rejoice and get pleasure?

I want to leave that verse alone, without clamping an interpretation on it, since the idea of pleasure in Kohelet is especially complex. But the next verse turns things around by suggesting that these enjoyments are gifts of God (and maybe part of the “olam” inside our hearts). The phrase “la’asot tov” does not mean “to get pleasure” in a modern sense. Some have translated it as “to see or experience good.”

The first part of verse 11 (“et hakol asa yafe beito”) adds yet another clue to the meaning.  If God has made everything beautiful in its time, then pleasure has something to do with being there when the beauty appears; seeing it, rejoicing in it. That is not always easy. Pleasure of this kind is not an escape, but a responsibility, a way of carrying oneself.

This afternoon, teachers, students, friends, and family went to the funeral of our colleague who died on October 6. It is not something to describe in a blog, but I am left thinking of her kindness. She was the first person in Hungary who invited me over. I wish I had returned the gesture in some way.

I don’t know whether I believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in human good, not only its possibility, but its existence. Hers will stay with me. And I hope she rests in peace.


The Hebrew text and 1917 JPS translation are courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

  • Recent Posts


  • Categories