“Vanity of Vanities”

Today’s reading from Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth) really brings out the Bible geek in me. So let me apologize in advance if you don’t find Hebrew words as fascinating as I do! Qoheleth is an obscure book of the Bible that is, ironically, the source of three well-known proverbs: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9); “To everything there is a season.” (3:1); and “Eat, drink, and be merry” (8:15). Beyond these famous sound bites, there’s a lively argument among interpreters of this book that centers around just one word. Qoheleth uses the Hebrew word hebel 38 times in 12 chapters. It’s a hard word to translate because it carries many possible meanings.

Our translation, the NRSV, renders hebel as “vanity,” as in “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” Hebel as “vanity” comes from Jerome’s definitive translation of the Bible into Latin in the fourth century. This sense of hebel is inherently negative. It communicates a feeling of contempt for life in this world. It suggests that everything earthly lacks value. Such a bias against the material realm has been pervasive, and deeply destructive, in Western Christianity. However, in his reading of Qoheleth, the medieval Franciscan theologian Bonaventure counters this assumption, asserting: “the one who despises the world despises God.” From the beginning, Jewish rabbinic commentaries on Qoheleth rendered hebel “breath” or “vapor.” As Psalm 4 puts it, “humanity is like breath.” So without making a value judgment, hebel  can represent something insubstantial, fleeting, and transient.[1]

Writer and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris reflects on how this fleeting nature of everything can lead to a condition the ancients called “acedia.” Acedia, as Norris describes it, is similar to depression. It shows up as boredom with the unending routines of life, as sense of skepticism that our lives have meaning at all or that our work accomplishes anything. It is a profound sense of not caring, and not even being able to care that we don’t care. In her book, Acedia and Me, Norris describes how this spiritual challenge shows up in monastic communities. “An elderly monk, disparaging the romantic image of monastic life once said to me, “People don’t realize how much of it is just plain tedium.” “But,” Norris reflects, “it is tedium with a purpose.” To support themselves, the first Christian monks spent their days weaving palm branches into baskets and ropes they could sell. And as they worked, they prayed. The steady rhythm of the work helped the monks memorize the psalms and the Gospels, which was a necessity in the fourth-century desert, as books were expensive and rare. But the monks also regarded this repetitive work and prayer as their way to God, hoping that over time the “straw” of mundane tasks could become the “gold” of ceaseless prayer. Norris tells an ancient story about Abba Paul, one of these “desert fathers.” Abba Paul lived far away from civilization, so far that taking his baskets to market was impossible. So after he had filled his cave with a year’s worth of baskets, he would burn them, and then keep right on weaving new ones.

In 2004 artist Mavis Muller inaugurated a very similar contemporary tradition. Alaska Public Media reports:

Every year, on a windswept patch of land in Homer’s Mariner Park, community members build a beautiful handmade basket. A really big one. And just a few days later, they burn it to the ground. Slender branches of alder and willow are used to build the ribs of the basket. Volunteers weave bunches of fireweed, wild grasses and curly dock to create the body. It stands about 15 feet tall, silhouetted against the setting sun. Some people might think it’s odd to spend a week building such a beautiful piece of art, only to burn it down. But not Mavis. She says, “It’s human nature to want to become attached to things. I think what happens with this kind of art, is that it reminds us about the truth of the matter, which is that all things are impermanent and nothing will last forever.”[2]

The burning of the baskets, in ancient times, and today, is all about embracing the fleeting character of life, accepting the transient nature of all we work for. Qoheleth would say it’s also about acknowledging that neither good fortune nor suffering is fairly distributed, that much of what happens to us is a matter of chance or mystery and not an expression of divine purpose or justice. Because all is hebel, Qoheleth ultimately prescribes enjoyment, concluding, “there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” (8:15) The only satisfaction, the only source of security in this life, is to be found in hebel itself, in the gift of breath, vapor, and wind, in the recognition that there is nothing at all on earth that we can keep, or own or control. Within apparent futility is hidden a life of abundance, joy, and peace.

            The rich man in Jesus’ parable harvests a bumper crop. He says to himself, “what should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” So he builds bigger barns. Then he puts up his feet and muses, drawing on the words of Qoheleth, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” I don’t think the parable is about criticizing the rich man’s decision to enjoy himself. I think it is a condemnation of his impulse to keep extra stored in barns, to hoard, rather than to share, the good stuff. In Luke’s view, the temptation is almost irresistible to seek security and the illusion of permanence in money and possessions rather than to enjoy the transient, fleeting, breath-like goodness of real life.

Luke believed that wealth places a profound barrier between us and the abundant life God wants to give us. Perhaps this barrier is a bit like the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And perhaps the antidote to this human condition is as simple and as paradigm-shifting as play. Did you hear about the set of pink see-saws that adorned the border wall this past week? NPR reported: “The seesaws were installed on Sunday, when their steel beams were eased through the slats of the tall fence.” Ronald Rael, one of the architects who created the seesaws, said,

children and adults were connected in meaningful ways on both sides with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side.

The report concluded:

The bright pink teeter-totters brought a new chance to see the border through the eyes of people who live along the divide—and for those people to see each other in a new light, even if their view was confined by tall steel slats. “The joy that was shared this day on both sides is something that will stay with me forever,” Rael said on Instagram Tuesday.[3]

            The fact that all is hebel can be a reason for fearful hoarding and frantic consuming, for violent wall-building and the numb despair of not caring that we don’t care. Or it can be profoundly liberating, a reason to enjoy life and to share that enjoyment with others, a motivation to be generous with our stuff, with our love, with our energy and passion. We can “eat, drink and be merry” to forget life’s pain, meaninglessness and absurdity. Or we can “eat, drink and be merry” as a way of entering fully into the sacred suffering and joy of that same life as a way of receiving the fleeting wonder of creation’s breath. We can “eat, drink and be merry” as an act of resistance in a world that is obsessed with building bigger barns and amassing more powerful weapons and defending more secure walls.

All is hebel, the preacher rightly reminds us. When we die, all that we have worked for will belong to others. And we will have no control over what they do with the wealth we’ve gathered, the things we’ve built, the wisdom we’ve acquired. The poet Wendell Berry thinks that’s a good thing. The greatest human accomplishment, he argues, is to become compost for the beauty of a world that is sustainable.

If we will have the wisdom to survive,

   to stand like slow-growing trees
   on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,

   if we will make our seasons welcome here,

   asking not too much of earth or heaven,
   then a long time after we are dead
   the lives our lives prepare will live there.   

 May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://www.academia.edu/2557443/_The_Meaning_of_Hebel_in_Qohelet_An_Intertextual_Suggestion_

[2] https://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/09/16/burning-basket-is-an-honored-homer-tradition/

[3] https://www.npr.org/2019/07/30/746612462/see-saw-diplomacy-lets-people-play-together-along-u-s-border-wall