Havel havalim (Koheleth)

hevel

Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

The Danger of False Confession

In the seventh chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon orders all the animals to assemble in the yard. He is wearing his two medals and surrounded by nine huge dogs. He lets out a whimper, and the dogs immediately seize four pigs and drag them forward. The pigs then confess to collaborating with Snowball. The dogs kill them on the spot. Then come more confessions: from the hens, a goose, several sheep, and more–until there is a pile of bloody corpses on the ground. The allegory is obvious and disturbing, but even more disturbing is the draft horse Boxer’s comment on the events.

I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings.

Up to that point, there were two implicit possibilities: either those who confessed had actually done what they said they had done, or they confessed for some other reason (for instance, to get the whole thing over with). But Boxer suggests that there is only one possible truth: that everyone is guilty (except for Napoleon and the dogs, one must suppose). The only solution, then, is to work harder. What Boxer doesn’t know, and what the reader knows, is that in assuming guilt, he has renounced all hope of a clear view of the situation.

Consider, now, by contrast, the Book of Job. (This seems a far-flung comparison, but it will make sense.) One of the most remarkable things about Job is that he does not confess to things he hasn’t done. He stays not only faithful to God, but clear in his mind.From Job 27.1-8:

[1] Moreover Job continued his parable, and said,
[2] As God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment; and the Almighty, who hath vexed my soul;
[3] All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
[4] My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
[5] God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
[6] My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.
[7] Let mine enemy be as the wicked, and he that riseth up against me as the unrighteous.
[8] For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?

At the end, in chapter 42, he repents, but that is at a different level. It remains true that he committed no sin, and his holding fast to this truth was essential to his ultimate restoration.

Treacherous confession comes in at least two forms: refusing to admit to a wrong you have committed, and confessing to a wrong you have not committed. (There are still more, but these are the two I will discuss.) Sometimes the latter treachery is worse because of its very seduction. False confession can feel good. It brings forgiveness, perhaps, or swift punishment, or at least some kind of resolution. The price is your mind and soul. If, like Boxer, you convince yourself that you are guilty of just about anything, then it’s no longer possible to choose the good or even to understand what it is. You labor away, but that gets you nowhere. You have only the comfort of thinking that you need to work harder.

To return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, which inspired this post: the careless use of “we”  confuses one’s relationship to the world–and, with that, one’s intellectual and artistic life. Among other things, it prevents one from criticizing anything except oneself, and strips even that of its integrity. (This last observation is mine, not Bromwich’s, but I build it from various arguments in the book.)

In the first chapter, Bromwich discusses a series of events at Yale Law School (drawing primarily on a report published in the New Republic by a law student, Jeff Rosen). In 1990, a white female law school student was raped by two black men in New Haven; soon afterward, ten black law students found hate mail in their mailboxes.

The dean of the law school issued a public memorandum stating that the letters pointed to the racism of the associated institutions. A newly formed Committee on Diversity called for a one-day boycott of classes and decided that the day should be devoted to sensitivity workshops run by the New York organization Project Reach. (Attendance, I take it, was voluntary but strongly encouraged.) The dean urged faculty members to take part.

There is more to these events and to Bromwich’s analysis than I am conveying here. But he points out that “the professional insulation of the academy, and the consequent weakening of good sense, alone lent plausibility to certain developments in the law school case.” The Diversity Committee, the dean, and the students (and participating faculty) chose to focus on the hateful action of an unidentified person, presumably white, who could be anyone and thus, in some twisted sense, was everyone. (Hence the sensitivity workshops.) In the meantime, Bromwich notes, there were real political battles being fought in the outside world: “David Duke and other racists of an admitted virulence were inching closer to power in contests for state or national office.” Instead of putting their efforts into fighting blatant racists, the students chose to go on a hunt for the invisible racist within the law school, the racist who resides in each of us. Among them, there was likely a Boxer who resolved to work harder.

Now, let’s look at this from another angle for a moment. There is (or can be) virtue in recognizing subtle wrongs in yourself, or the potential for wrongs. Most of us have felt hatred, anger, jealousy, prejudice, excessive admiration, misplaced desire, and more. Most of us have judged others unfairly at some time, or restrained ugly impulses. It is important to recognize these things. But it matters how we respond. Each of us is tasked with choosing what to do–that is, locating and acting on the good or the beautiful, or not, as the case may be. There is such a thing as transcending something petty or ugly. Faults and foibles are universal, but there is a vast difference between leaving hate mail in someone’s mailbox and not doing so (and not even considering it).

This brings me back to the word “we” (see an earlier piece). I am not confessing falsely when I say that I have used it in a slippery way. When criticizing a social, educational, or other tendency, I have sometimes softened the accusation by saying “we”–thereby implying that I, too, take part in the problem. And indeed sometimes I do. For instance, I find many online discussions distracting and dissipating but get involved in them anyway (not very often, of late). On the other hand, I am not on Facebook or Twitter, don’t do much Web surfing, rarely use a cell phone, and spend a lot of time reading books. This is a relatively trivial example, but it illustrates the point. If I see a problem with online and digital distractions, I do no one a favor by suggesting, beyond the point of truth, that the problem is mine.

It is difficult to find the right use of “we.” It is a worthy challenge. There’s more at stake than may appear at first.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.