Difficult times, like the financial crisis, can be transforming times. Without minimising the pain, suffering can be a life-changing experience if we let it open our eyes to the true sources of happiness.
This is the message of the book that Jews read last week as part of the festival of Tabernacles: Ecclesiastes, or in Hebrew Kohelet. Kohelet contains some of the finest prose in the Bible. Its phrases have passed into the language: “There is a time for all things”, “The race is not to the swift” and, most famously, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.
Kohelet is a victim of affluenza. He has everything: houses, servants, gardens. He is, he says, the richest man on earth. Yet it does not bring him happiness. The more he has, the more pointless it all seems.
The book has seemed to many to be obscure, even self-contradictory. At times Kohelet seems miserable, at others, joyous. He is capable of hating life and loving life. His prose reads like a jumble of non-sequiturs. It’s hard to say what the work as a whole is saying.
The trouble lies in the translation of the key word that is the theme of the book. The word is hevel. The King James Bible translates it as “vanity”. Other translations read it as “meaningless, empty, pointless, futile”. None captures the real sense of the word, and as a result we miss the point of the book.
In Hebrew all words relating to the soul, the spirit, the life force, have to do with the act of breathing. So does the word hevel. It means a short, shallow breath. That is Kohelet’s fundamental insight. Life is vulnerable, fragile, brief. It is a mere fleeting breath, yet it is all we have. Whenever I read Kohelet, I think of the words of King Lear at the end of Shakespeare’s play, when he holds in his arms his dead daughter Cordelia: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life / And thou no breath at all?”
Kohelet is about mortality. At first, the knowledge that he will die threatens to rob Kohelet of all meaning. What use is wealth, power, wisdom, success, if one day we will no longer be here to enjoy them? Naked we came into the world and naked we will leave. Nothing lasts. We all suffer the same fate. Good or evil, we all die.
But Kohelet does not leave it there. At some stage he has an insight that changes his life. What would happen if we did not die, if we were truly immortal? We would never experience joy or exhilaration. We would feel no need to have children, or to leave a mark on the world. We would never even love. Lacking nothing, we would feel nothing.
A book that never ended would not be a book. Music that went on for ever would not be a symphony. All meaning takes place within a frame. Birth and death are the frame that give meaning to life.
Understanding this, Kohelet’s whole scheme of values is transformed. He now knows that happiness lies in simple things, like work: “The sleep of one who labours is sweet.” And love: “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love.” And joy: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart.”
Kohelet suddenly realises that all the time he was pursuing wealth and possessions, he was chasing after substitutes for life, instead of celebrating life itself. He now knows that “Whoever loves money never has money enough”. He also knows that “there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live”. Like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, he knows that the best thing to do with wealth is to give it away.
Kohelet does not find life meaningless, futile, mere vanity. That is an error of translation. Kohelet finds life short. The prospect of death threatens to rob him of all happiness, until he realises that mortality is the very condition of our happiness. Because life is short, every moment is precious. That is the knowledge most of us are only taught through pain or crisis or loss. Work, love, life itself: these are the sources of joy. The rest is gift-wrapping.
Happiness lies in being, not in having.
(First published in The Times)