My heart has been heavy this week and I found myself pondering the imponderables of life and death, sickness and health. My wife and I just returned from a weekend in Los Angeles, attending a beautiful memorial service for her departed grandmother. But on top of that, I have just learned that one of my dear friends is fighting for his very life. My heart is heavy and I find myself turning to the bible… though I admit it’s in my very peculiar way. Life and death is a topic the bible says quite a bit about.
At my grandmother-in-law’s service, there was a splendid reading of the beginning of Ecclesiastes chapter 3, led by the great-grandchildren of the family– none older than eleven. As the kids (one not old enough to read, but trying so hard to follow along with her brother!) read these verses, I was struck by how the world must look to them and how Ecclesiastes speaks to them, even as they won’t understand it yet. It was a beautiful scene and I’m tearing up thinking about it.
You know Ecclesiastes 3, even if you don’t know you do. I’d wager that it’s probably the longest well-known passage of the bible, if you account for the addition of a few extra words by Peter Seeger. Here it is in the old JPS translation:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
Admit it, you had the Byrds in your head, singing along? I didn’t. I had a small gaggle of cute children in monotone, describing the ways that the world changes around them and the ways in which all things have their time. It’s a beautiful image.
But, let me put this chapter in context. It’s near the top of the Book of Ecclesiastes, what I personally find to be one of the more challenging books of the bible. There was some debate in through the first couple of centuries whether it should have been added at all!
Here’s the start of the book:
THE WORDS OF the Koheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
What profit hath man of all his labour wherein he laboureth under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; and the earth abideth for ever.
Who wrote these words that Pete Seeger cribbed thousands of years later? A mysterious figure known as “The Koheleth”. Looking over my bibles, some leave the word untranslated and mysterious. Some translate it as “Teacher” (KJV) and others as “Preacher” (NIV). One footnote calls him the “Leader of the Assembly”. The text says that he is a “son of David” and the implication may be that he is Solomon, but it could just as easily have been a later king or even just a pseudonymous writer. It doesn’t matter much.
Only four lines in and we come to the great mystery that “Turn! Turn! Turn!” hoped to address: the endless cycle of time and generations. I read the whole book as an argument that “The Koheleth” has with himself: at times taking joy in man’s works and seeing them as being inspired by God, at other times decrying them as simple vanity or hubris and ultimately leading to evil. He is described as a wise man, and yet he sorrowfully claims that his wisdom only allowed him to see deeper sorrow. The book ends with an affirmation that mankind’s role is to obey God’s commandments and that God alone can judge whether a man’s works were for good or for evil. It’s deep stuff and I hope someday to delve into it more deeply. I’ve read it now in three translations and each lend different color to the words, casting different features into focus– and I wish I could read it in its original to see all of those facets at once.
Curiously, these notions echo ones in Buddhism. They call it the “Truth in Suffering” and believe that the only way to avoid suffering is to practice non-attainment. That’s a terribly simplification, but these ideas were not unique to Judaism. It’s a universal to the human condition, and yet I can’t help but think that the joy always outpaces the sorrow. That’s just my nature.
A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death [is better] than the day of one’s birth.
All things have their time, but Koheleth reminds us that while a day of birth offer the promise of a great life to come, death does not come without its own promise. That of a life completed, well-lived, with loved ones and a legacy. It’s what we can hope for and reach for. It’s what my wife’s grandmother achieved and it’s what we can all aspire to. All things move in their turn, yes, but the turning of the wheel itself has great beauty.
Grandma Florence was a beautiful woman. I wish I had known her better, or longer, or in her youth. I know her mostly only through my wife’s stories and the stories of her family. By all respects she had a great life, with many loved ones, and many stories to share. She will be missed. She is missed.
Up next: Have I ever correctly predicted what would come up next?