Kohelet is a book of wisdom attributed to King Solomon. Like all true wisdom, it stands the test of time — we can see its relevance no matter when we are reading it.
I find it interesting to come back to works like this each year and see how they change for me, based on where I am in my life and what’s happening in the world. This year, it strikes me that Kohelet is the perfect book for our time: a mirror reflecting our current age of anxiety.
The opening line is:
Hevel of hevels. All is hevel.
Throughout the book, as the author laments about hard work, the insufficiency of what we amass, the inability to control our legacy, and other anxieties of the living, he comes back to the refrain that all is hevel.
The word hevel is often translated as meaningless, vanity, futility. As if he’s asking, what’s the point of it all?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that hevel means breath.
This offers a different insight in to the purpose of Kohelet and what the author is trying to convey. Scholars have analyzed the words for centuries, trying to understand its meaning and message.
But we can look to Kohelet not for what the words mean, but for what the author is modeling.
Kohelet is a meditation on life.
Life is transient and temporary. Nothing lasts: no matter how great our work, it will be forgotten. Buildings can be torn down. You can’t leave your wisdom to others. Wealth doesn’t buy happiness. Kohelet laments how hard he worked in the past without enjoying the moment. Rewards aren’t guaranteed. You can’t control your legacy; no matter how great you are today, you’re likely to be forgotten.
This is anxiety: looking to the past or the future, but forgetting about the present.
Periodically, Kohelet returns to the present: all is hevel — it’s all in the breath.
The breath brings us into the present moment; it’s the most alive thing we have. Without it, we are just a sack of bones.
This is what meditation looks like. We get absorbed in thoughts, worry, and reflection, then we return to the breath. The power of now. This moment. This breath. This place where we are alive.
In the end, the breath is all that matters. When we have our breath, we have everything we need.