“Beautiful in its time”

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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.

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