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Ecclesiastes: 1:12-15

It’s been a while. Let’s see if I can do a bunch of verses at one go:

[Ecc 1:12-15 KJV]I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all [things] that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all [is] vanity and vexation of spirit. [That which is] crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.

There’s an interesting question of whether the kohelet narrator persona is claiming to be Solomon, claiming to be a different king, claiming to be rightful king in the sense of being a descendant of Solomon, or has some other rhetorical goal. It’s a trifle confusing to me. We don’t need a single answer! Not one that cancels out the others, at any rate. Clearly, though, kohelet is rhetorically at the pinnacle of mankind, such that if something is futile for kohelet, who is was king over Israel in Jerusalem, it’s futile for any human. It’s not a lack in the speaker as an individual, but part of the ontological status of humanity.

What else to look at… the vexation of spirit phrase, r’ut ruach, is a lovely one. While I adore the KJV full phrase vanity and vexation of spirit, I think translating r’ut as vexation is a stretch. The other translations have things like striving and chasing and grasping and so forth—and recall that ruach is both spirit/soul and wind. The wind in verse six is ruach, but the ruach in verse 14 is spirit. Or wind again, if you like the idea of grasping wind, combining with our tower of nothingness image earlier. Or, if you like, both—the idea of spirit’s insubstantiality and that grappling with it is like grappling with the wind. A matter of futility, either way.

Futility is also, it would seem, the theme of making straight the crooked places. Although … here we again have the lo yukchal wording that YHB talked about in verse 8, so perhaps we can carry on that theme of humility, rather than futility: it is not man, not even a king, who can make the crooked places straight, but the Divine. As presumably grasping the wind is not futile for the Divine the way it is for man. Looked at it from that angle—it is not that everything is futile, that everything is impermanence and emptiness and vapor, but that everything that seems empty is a vessel for the Divine. Everything that we cannot do is a reminder of the greatness of the Divine Creation. Everything that is missing cannot be numbered. But what if everything that is missing can indeed be numbered, but not by us? What if the Divine can number even those things that don’t exist? And, indeed, who are we, what is Man that we should number the things that aren’t there?

Here’s another image, and this one is a total stretch, not meant to be a proper translation but a hint of a connotation, a shadow of an image: r’ut is connected (in Esther 1:19 and some others) to romantic desire or feminine desirability. When we talk of pursuing or grasping or striving for, think about perhaps chasing after as one chases a skirt. Wooing, even. All the works that are done under the sun are as vapor, as if we were wooing a spirit. An unconsummatable desire, the seduction of the bodiless soul. Kissing a ghost. Futility! But if all of life for people is as if we were trying to kiss ghosts, it’s because that’s not our job to do. That’s what the Divine is for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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