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Ecclesiastes 3:2

I have not yet given up on Ecclesiastes. We’re on 3:2, the beginning of the time poem. The poem is seven verses long, each verse having two contrasting pairs, making 28 times altogether, which may be meaningful (the moon and menses) or may not (fours and sevens are pretty common). I haven’t a clue. I do think that in things of this kind it’s a good idea to keep in mind that the verse divisions may not have been the ones Kohelet originally intended—it is more natural to think of them as fourteen pairs than as seven pairs of pairs. On the other hand, the verse divisions, even if added later, are part of the Scripture, so I don’t feel comfortable ignoring them entirely. They don’t appear at first glance to be paired in puns, or in sound similarities at all. It’s not an acrostic, or one of those tricky things where the last two letters of the word are the first two of the word in the next row. In fact, reading it fairly closely in Hebrew for the first time, I found it a little disappointing in terms of the sound of it. The rhythms and so forth. Just for sheer poetic wit, I was far more impressed with the poem in chapter one.

Well, anyway. Here’s the opening pair of pairs:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;


ayt laledet/v’ayt lamoot/ayt lata’at/v’ayt la’akoor natoo’a

The words:

  1. yld, to give birth. Most often this shows up in a form translated in our KJV as ’begat’. My Ginsberg translation has a footnote saying that this is literally giving birth, but in the text goes with the passive voice. The Targum,which is not reliable as a translation and has its own agenda, but is very old and reveals how (some) people thought of the text two thousand years ago, has There is a special time to beget sons and daughters. So if you want to think of this as a time to have babies, rather than a time to be born, you certainly can.
  2. mvt, to die. This verb is used for both dying and killing, but seems to be here in the former voice. Still, the Targum has and a special time for killing disobedient and perverse children, to kill them with stons according to the decree of the judges, so (a) the case is not absolutely clear, (2) do good by your parents, and (iii) ew, the Targum. Also, the verb is used for both violent and natural death; the Midrash says the pair distinguish peacetime from wartime.
  3. nt’, to plant. You know, to plant. In the ground. Also used metaphorically, just like we do—you can plant a flag, or the Divine can plant a people. The metaphor of the Divine planting the people Israel is a favorite of Jeremiah.
  4. ’kr, to uproot. This word is also used for cutting the hamstrings of livestock, as is done in war; in fact, this is the only place in Scripture that this word is used to mean literally uprooting a plant. Which we know it is, because the word nt’ is used as the object of the verb, so, as the KJV, to uproot what was planted.

So. I mean, yes, clearly we have to pairs of opposites: birth and death, planting and uprooting. And there’s a nice metaphor here, with the beginning and ending of lives. On the other hand, we are specifically talking about time here, and the thing about birth and death is that they are resistant to scheduling. Probably proverbially. If you say that there is a time to plant, well, that’s something that you probably do think about in advance, plan ahead, choose the best time. Hire yard hands. Lay in your tools and supplies. And uprooting—surely weeding and winnowing and whatnot is something you absolutely do schedule in advance?

In the Midrash, the Rabbis take the statement that there is a time for being born and a time for dying as a statement about the Divine control over our lives and deaths—From the hour a person is born it is decreed for him how many years he is to live. If he is worthy, he completes his years, but if he is unworthy they are reduced in number for him; as it is written: the fear of the Lord prolongeth days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened. There is disagreement about the details, but there seems to be agreement that we read this that just as we may plan to plant at such-and-such a time, or weed at such-and-such a time, so the Divine plants and pulls up according to a Divine plan, unknown to us. If birth and death seem very different from planting and uprooting when it comes to time, that is because we are looking under the sun. The view is different from over it. Plausible! Although what use is that point of view to us?

And again: these are specific examples of ait l’khol kheifetz, there is a time for all desires. Are these things that people want, or that Kohelet wants? People don’t so much desire to be born, and desiring death is unusual. I suppose people like both planting and uprooting, and I’ve enjoyed both of those activities, but I don’t know that I’d call them desires. My own experience is that even when it’s absolutely necessary to pull out half of the shoots so that the remaining ones will flourish, it’s kinda heartbreaking. We desire life, and we desire, oh, fresh peas, but the birth and death and planting and weeding part are not the parts we really desire. Frankly, I would much rather think that the Divine feels that way about our own deaths than calling them kheifetz.

So. Where are we? Under the sun, but still lost and confused. I am, anyway. I’m not sure that’s a wrong place to be at this point. I don’t require poems to have more answers than questions, certainly in the first line. In fact, I feel on the whole pretty positive about having more questions, and more specific questions, than I expected to from the first verse.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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