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Ecclesiastes: 1:4-7

OK, I’m going to try this again:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea [is] not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. [Ecc 1:3-7 KJV]

The KJV poetry is lovely, here, but it’s lovely in a very, very different way than the Hebrew is lovely. I’ll try to transliterate: verse 4 is something like dor holaykh v’dor ba/vha-aretz l’olam omadet. The next one goes v’zarakh hashemesh u-va hashemesh/v’el m’komo sho’ayf zorayah hu shahm. It’s an interesting structure of repetition—the first half of 4 goes noun-verb-noun-verb, where the first half of 5 goes verb-noun-verb-noun, in both parts changing the verb but repeating the noun. Verse 6: holaykh el-darom v’sovayv el-tzafon sovayv/sovayv holaykh ha-ruach v’al-s’vivotav shav ha-ruach. In this one we’ve got the repetition of the verb, not the noun, and here it continues into the second half, repeating in two forms (and then with the similar-sounding word shav added as well). Verse seven: kol ha-n’khalim hol’khim el-ha-yam v’ha-yam aynenu/malay el-m’kom shehankhalim holchim sham haym shavim lalachet. This time the first half goes modifier-noun-verb-object-noun-modifier, with the second noun a repetition of the first object. What I’m getting at is that it is both heavily structured, in the sense that most of the words in the original are tied down to their place in the structure of repetition, but that what is being repeated shifts from verse to verse, so instead of coming off very rumpty-tumpty june/spoon/moon, it comes off almost disconcertingly uneven within the structure. I suppose it’s like that Anglo-Saxon poetry in that way, although I don’t know enough about it to be sure.

Oh, and there’s a presumably deliberate rhyme-like-thing with the rivers ha-n’khalim and the verb to go holaykh, in its plural form here holkhim. Can you hear that? They are both repeated in the second half of the verse as well. Also, holaykh is the verb for the generations going as well as the wind going on its spinning, so there’s repetition across the verses as well. Also, I really like that he takes the sun from the end of verse 2, puts the earth at the end of verse 3 and then brings the sun back at the beginning of verse 4—in verse 2, I think he’s using the under the sun as one kind of reference, not really referring to the sun at all, but it leads into this extended metaphor about the physical world, including the sun, the earth, the winds and the sea. Just really lovely.

As for the content? Well, it’s pretty accurate: an extended image of constant change along with constant, well, constancy. Everything is constantly laboring, not just the people but the sun and the land and the water and the very air itself, only to return to what it was before. An endless cycle of—what? Impotence? Futility? Would it be better, somehow, if the sea were to fill up and overflow? Would it be better if the sun rose and went and then stayed gone? Should the wind have a final resting place?

No, I don’t think I take from these images a sense of futility, but a sense of stability. The earth abideth for ever. There will always be rivers emptying into the sea; there will always be winds, swirling and turning. It’s a thought more comforting than bleak, to me, if only because I can’t screw things up so badly that the sun will stop rising in the morning.

One more thing I’ll observe: the wind spins sovayv like a top or a dreidel, a s’vivon. It spins and it spins, spinning right out of the end of the first half of the verse and into the second, and then it shav, it re-turns. That’s a huge word, shuv or shuvah, turning and returning. We have talked about it with Jeremiah and with Jereboam, with Jacob ben Kurshai and with Elizer ben Jacob, and even with Maurice Sendak. Even the wind does t’shuvah. Even the rivers that empty into the sea—as impossible as it is to send the river in reverse , even the rivers do t’shuvah.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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