I sometimes fantasise about what I would do if I was offered the opportunity to travel back in time and spend a day in any place and period of history I chose. A strong candidate would be the editorial offices of the Bible some time in the late first century. It’s not so much that I imagine them with their pot of glue cutting and pasting: – ‘Do you think we should include that piece about Abraham almost sacrificing his son?’ – ‘Why not? It’s quite exciting really!’
More seriously, it’s that I find the breadth of vision and imagination which must have prevailed among those who put together the anthology which we call the Tenach or Hebrew Bible utterly remarkable and quite extraordinary.
There definitely were debates. ‘They sought to hide the book of Ecclesiastes’, notes the Talmud. The Song of Songs and even parts of the work of Ezekiel were other borderline candidates. But in the end a profound spirit of inclusion prevailed. As a result the person who spends a lifetime with these texts at the core of their daily, weekly and yearly meditations, as Jews throughout the ages always have done, finds so many of the most challenging questions not outside, but within, the sacred canon. Is there anyone listening up there? Is God, if there is a God, just? Does life mean anything in the end? These questions are all in there, without easy answers. Those editorial decisions, whether made by individuals or by default through the assent or attrition of generations, represent deep courage, faith and wisdom.
Tomorrow, as always on the Shabbat in the middle or at the close of Succot, we read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. It is arguably the most ‘modern’ text in the entire Bible. One of its key words is hevel, which the King James Bible translates as ‘vanity’, but which literally means empty breath. Time and again the writer describes thoughts and experiences as hevel, empty and pointless, as if trying to multiply life and its experiences by zero and see what then remains.
Another key word is mikreh, ‘happening’ or, perhaps, ‘fate’. What’s revolutionary about this simple term is the assumption which comes with it, that events don’t necessarily have a purpose, that things can just ‘happen’, that there may not be a destiny which directs our ends. The very word invites the follow-up question, ‘Well, then, does it matter what we do?’
To this the author responds with a definite, though unusual, ‘yes’. It’s a ‘yes’ which focuses on the little, ordinary things of life, – eating, drinking, enjoying the fruits of one’s labour,- rather than on the deep, meaningful experiences one would expect to find lauded in the Bible. But beyond these seemingly ‘little’ things one touches a deeper insight. We cannot know what comes after us; all we have is limited time and even more limited understanding. Therefore be wise, says Kohelet, be humble; respect God and enjoy life’s daily blessings because they are life’s great gift.