Everything is an Infinite Abel

Naked Questions/2 - Vanity in Hebrew is "habel", breath. That's what we are.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/11/2015

Logo QoheletWhen King Solomon was seated on the throne of his kingship, his heart was exalted, and he rejoiced in his riches. The Lord's anger was unleashed against him. He took the ring from his finger so he had to go as a vagabond and wandering in the world. He went to the cities of the land of Israel crying and pleading, and he said: 'I am Qoheleth', because his name had been Solomon before.. .

Targum, Ecclesiastes 1,12

All non-misleading wisdom is a chorus of different voices. A single voice, however sublime, is not sufficient to express the polyphony of life. Biblical wisdom is also plural, symphonic and colourful.

It lives off of different traditions, where each develops their unique note that only resonates together with the others. If a note is missing, music is impoverished and becomes something else, it loses its harmony, beauty and depth. Only ideology is monotonic, singular and of a single colour. The hardest but essential task awaits those who approach the biblical text honestly, willing to be touched and contaminated by it, and it means keeping the Song of Songs and Job, or Daniel and Ecclesiastes together.

Ecclesiastes, in its originality and dissonance, lives and thinks within the realm of biblical humanism. It is its heir and successor. The beginning of the book - "The words of the Preacher (Qoheleth), the son of David, king in Jerusalem." (1.1) - already says a lot. Qoheleth, which is possibly a collective name, puts his words under the wings of the icon of biblical wisdom, Solomon ("son of David"). He tells us immediately that his speech will be about wisdom in the name of the wisest king of all. And if this book has remained in the Jewish and Christian canon it is because the ancient scribes and rabbis believed its author, they heard a biblical wisdom and truth in that different song.

Solomon and Jerusalem, chosen as first words, form the geographical and cultural discourse of Ecclesiastes. We're inside the biblical story, in the holy city. In every biblical text man is the adam, and the earth, the sun, the sea, the rivers are those of Genesis 1. Also for Qoheleth, who does not tell us - because in his world he did not need to say it, but we must know it as we begin to read it.

The generative reading of each page of the Bible is always, and perhaps only the first one. Memory must operate from the end to the beginning, not vice versa. To hope that those words actually speak to us we must listen to them as if for the first time. Starting from the most famous ones: "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (1,1-2).

New interpreters of Ecclesiastes continue to propose new translations of that ancient and terrible: habel habalim, hakkol habel: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The other Song of Songs.

Everything is habel: everything is smoke, breath, wind, steam, waste, absurd, empty, nothing. Smoke of smokes, wind of winds, breath of breaths, waste of wastes, absurd of absurds, everything is only an infinite nothing. However, the first thing that habel suggested to the old listener of the book of the Qoheleth before any other meaning was a name: Abel, the victim of the hand of Cain, the young man killed in the fields during the first dark night of the world, when the first blood to wet the soil was that of the first brother. Abel, whose life was short, just a breath, ephemeral, fragile, innocent, vulnerable, mortally wounded. Everything is Abel - so sings Qoheleth. Under the sun the earth is populated by countless Abels. The world is full of victims, innocent blood spilled, brotherhoods turned into fratricide. The human condition is short-lived just as the life of Abel was. It is but a breath of wind (ruah), and we will stay alive only if and until that invisible and delicate breath is alive. The adam of Ecclesiastes is not Cain: it is Abel. Before being a sinful man he is an ephemeral and fragile being, subject to death and transience.

It is against this background of fragility, which embraces all things "under the sun", that Ecclesiastes sees human labour and its profit, too: "What profit does a man have of all his labour which he takes under the sun?" (1,3). Work (amal) is seen as fatigue, distress, pain. And what was work in the Near East twenty-three centuries ago, if not fatigue and pain? The first image of workers that came to the biblical reader's mind was that of the brick manufacturers, the slaves in Egypt. And what is real work today for the vast majority of people, if not above all labour, distress, generating life through pain? The rest is mostly the romanticism and rhetoric of non-workers who observe the work of others from just too far away.

The word that Qoheleth places between habel and adam is yitron: profit. Profit is the first cultural word of the book, the perfect expression of that religion which promised and promises to win over the ephemeral human condition via economic success. These opening lines are not a moral on profits and the economy; but in choosing profit as the first human word Qohelet wanted to say something important to us. Yitron was a term of the economic language of the new religion of trade and easy gains. To express the vanity of life and work Qoheleth could have taken a word from the moral or theological dictionary. Instead he took it from the commercial one, to tell us that there is a close link between vanitas and the economy, and thus send a clear message to his culture which, like ours, saw the first care of vanity in profit and money, the first security when faced with the uncertainty of life, the first sign by which God blesses the non-vain life of the righteous. The first is vanity is to think that money can eliminate or radically reduce the vulnerability of human life.

Given the fragile and ephemeral existential condition of Adam, Ecclesiastes shows us the continuity of adamah, the earth: "One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth abides for ever. The sun arises, and the sun goes down, and with desire returns to his place from which he arises again. The wind goes toward the south and turns about unto the north; it whirls about continually, and the wind returns again according to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, there they return again." (1,4-7)

Within this world of things that stay and remain, the adam feels the insufficiency of his words, of his sight and hearing: "All things are full of labour; more than man can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing." (1,8) The poverty of words, eyes and ears is the experience of the inability of humans to capture life, to really listen to the sounds of the world. We see through an opaque glass. We are in need of words, gazes and listening, and we do not access the deepest and truest things of life. It was true yesterday, and today it is even more so: we are immersed in the world of some extremely powerful tools to write, hear and see, but when we fall in love, suffer, or want to console a friend, we feel the ancient neediness of Qoheleth again. The powerful media do not reduce but rather amplify the exhaustion of words.

Man's life passes quickly in his deep poverty of time and knowledge. The land, the rivers, the seas stay there, however, in their mystery and timelessness. Here Qohelet takes us a little inside the heart of the man of ancient times, before science explained the "water cycle". In the mystery and awe he felt when, sitting on the bank of the river, he watched the eternal passing of the water, or when he was watching the estuary from a hill and wondered "how can the great sea water supply the small spring in the mountains?". And as he was looking at rivers and seas in their eternal cycle, that ancient man could see the old man and the baby die, and felt the fragility of his own breath which lived in him temporarily and he was not the master of it.

Ecclesiastes comes to us in an era that's full of innovations that have prolonged the duration of our breath, it talk to us who are drunk with a technology that wants us to master our last breath as well as the first one of our children. If we can intuit something of that ancient first look at the world and ourselves, if we hear our own passing and the staying of the earth, the stones, mountains and seas, a new reconciliation can flourish between the eternal and our finitude. We can become more manlike and more part of that remaining. The adam is both "a little less than Elohim" (Psalm 8) and just water vapour. He is the only one on the planet able to pray and think about the universe, but when facing the force and the "eternity" of a rock or a waterfall he feels he is like windswept cane. All ideologies and anthropological diseases arise when this ambivalence is skipped, when we can no longer hold together our infinite dignity with our infinite fragility. Each non-vain prayer rises as a cane under a sky that is hoped and believed not to be empty.

And when, sitting in the reed beds of our rivers that are now emptied of their mystery, we reach the verse: "and there is no new thing under the sun" (1,9), we can only join Qoheleth and say: it is true. "The thing that has been, it is that which shall be," a phrase that, perhaps, is a counterpoint to the unpronounceable and absent name - YHWH: "I am who I am and that will be."

And then we ask ourselves: in our existential dimension, are we really different from the first Adam, today? Where is the real novelty compared to Eve, Noah, Lamech? If we try to take a really thorough look at Syria, the Sinai, the train stations by night, Rome, how could we not repeat here and now: "Everything is an infinite Abel". Considering the anthropological ground (the one that Qoheleth is interested in), where are the innovations? "Is there any thing of which it may be said, See, this is new? (1,10) Where are you different from Cain and Abel, man of my time?

Qoheleth keps the question mark in his hand, and we cannot, nor do we want to take it from him. Each and every non-vain humanism must begin with that question mark to start the search for something new. The novelty of Abel who, this time, returns from the fields together with his brother, as well as of the fratricide that resuscitates as fraternity. And we should not stop walking in cities and deserts until we see the brothers together again.

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