What Are We?

Utter meaningless. Everything is meaningless.
— Ecclesiastes 1:2

We all have moments when we resonate with Ecclesiastes’ maudlin opening: “Everything is meaningless.” Bible scholar Robert Alter translates “hevel” not as meaningless or vanity but as breath. All is vaporous and disappears as quickly as a human breath.  Yet, over Sukkot, when we read Ecclesiastes in the synagogue, this is usually not the sentiment we feel. It’s a harvest holiday. It’s referred to in Hebrew as our time of joy, not our time of existential angst. And, as Ecclesiastes continues, it does not get better. There is no happy ending: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)

These verses are reminiscent of others found in our wisdom literature. One in particular stands out. If you walk past Emerson Hall’s philosophy department at Harvard, you’ll find these bold words in capital letters chiseled in stone framing the top of the building. “WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM?” How’s that for an ego boost, as some of the world’s smartest young men and women walk through those doors? Remember: you’re nothing. But, in truth, this is faulty biblical advertising because the psalm continues: “What is man, that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You pay attention to him?” You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5-6). Human buildings are a strange amalgam. We are nothing and something at the same time. 

The Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, writing on this psalm, captures its dialectic nature:

In a pensive mood, the psalmist muses upon a double paradox. There is the seeming contradiction between God’s transcendence and His immanence: God is beyond the limits of human cognition; yet He has chosen to make His presence indwell in the life of humanity.

Emerson Hall, as I once wrote before, was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a great American writer and thinker who was also a Unitarian minister and headed the Transcendentalist Movement. He was a Harvard student twice. He was first accepted to Harvard at 14 and was graduated at 18 and then returned to study in Harvard’s divinity school and continued his relationship with the university. In the same vein as our quote, Emerson once said, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

Thinking about the world and our Creator makes us feel small indeed. The human ego must humble itself before a complicated and vast universe of mystery. But to be human is also to assert oneself in that universe in God’s image. This dialectic tension surfaces strongly on Sukkot, where we hold symbols of the harvest, bless them and shake them, often in a sukka, a fragile and temporary building. The sukka reminds us that even buildings of brick and mortar, structures that seem durable and long-lasting, will not last forever. Nothing we humans make will last forever. For now, we are but breath. Breath disappears, true, but it is also that involuntary movement that reminds us that we are still alive, pulsing with gratitude, anxious to create something of importance in this small life we’ve been given. 

If the sign of adult maturity is the capacity to hold contradiction, then Sukkot reminds us to lean into our complex mix of majesty and humility.

Shabbat Shalom

A Fly in the Ointment

Dead flies turn the perfumer’s ointment fetid and putrid; a little folly outweighs great wisdom.
— Ecclesiastes 10:1

If it's Sukkot, it must be time for a little dip into Ecclesiastes, that great biblical book of wisdom and contradiction. On the Shabbat of Sukkot, we read this book in synagogue, not sure if we should absorb its cynicism, feel undone by its doom or rejoice at its profundity. Maybe all three form our reaction.

Every year, I like to take a verse from the book and study it in depth. Today's verse opens chapter ten on the odd note of a perfumer's ointment. The verse has an important context. In the closing chapters of Ecclesiastes, we find a repeated contrast between intelligence and foolishness. The fool makes poor decisions. Even good decisions go south in the hands of a fool. And the fool is great at advertising his idiocy: "A fool's mind is also wanting when he travels, and he lets everybody know he is a fool" (10:3).

We understand why a fool is in particular danger when he or she travels. In a place where one may not know the language, the culture or the behaviors of the residents, the opportunities for mistake making - even for the wise - are heightened. The fool, because of an impetuous nature, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity; the traveling fool is a walking billboard for errors of judgment. Later in the chapter, the fool's lack of preparation for the trip becomes his undoing: "A fool's exertions tire him out, for he doesn't know how to get to a town" (10:15). With no map, no GPS, no help from an information center or a person on the street, the fool spends hours trying to find where to go, but it's hopeless.

A fool isn't merely someone with a low IQ. We use the term fool to describe a person who is rash and thoughtless, a cretin, a dullard who says things he or she shouldn't or steps into situations to be avoided by anyone with wit and wisdom. This may explain why chapter ten elaborates on situations that prove perilous for the fool: "He who digs a pit will fall into it; he who breaches a stone fence will be bitten by a snake. He who quarries stones will be hurt by them; he who splits wood will be harmed by it" (10:8-9). In the course of manual labor, people need to dig holes and cut down trees but since this is dangerous work, the wise person will do as much as possible to create safe conditions. The fool won't.

"The fool's lips are his undoing" (10:12), we read. The fool is not careful with what he says and thus, brings trouble upon himself and others. "His talk begins as silliness and ends as disastrous madness. Yet the fool talks and talks!" (10:13-14). You watch the fool put his foot into his mouth and instead of taking it out, he pushes that foot further in until it seems permanently stuck.

What does this have to do with a perfumer's ointment? Perfume, particularly in the ancient world, was laborious to make and very costly to purchase. It was the time-consuming work of experts who concocted compounds, fixatives and solvents so that a wonderful smell available in nature could be bottled and then linger. We have perfumes from very ancient civilizations, dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The word perfume is from the Latin "to smoke through," indicating part of the process of transforming a smell into a salve.

Perfume, until relatively recently, was most commonly used to mask bad body odors since people bathed infrequently. If you have a dead fly in your perfume, your expensive oil will begin to smell bad - even if it's a very tiny dead fly, thus undermining the purpose for your perfume in the first place. You can't take away a bad smell with another bad smell and hope that a good smell will result. If you have something that could potentially help you, but you don't take very good care of it, it won't serve its purpose and may even act counter to its stated purpose. The writer Douglas Adams once said, "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."

"A little folly outweighs great wisdom." In the shadow of Yom Kippur and this season of change, it's important to consider the silly, stupid and often small ways we get in the way of our own success. The good news is that if the problem is as small as a fly, we should be able to muster the wisdom to overcome our own foolishness.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot