The Song of Songs is read during Pesach and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. These exquisite biblical books can be read in tandem, presenting opposite sides of the question of the point or pointlessness of life. Such is the perspective of a an essay on TheTorah.com website. Ecclesiastes claims that everything, even love, is evanescent, while the Song argues that love is the answer, for as the poem states, love is as strong as death. Is the Song an answer to Ecclesiastes? Does spring compensate for autumn?
The interplay between the two is striking, and seems intentional. Ecclesiastes claims all is vanity, "Hevel Hevelim," whereas the Song counters by calling itself "Shir Ha-Shirim." The parallelism of this couplet is striking, as if they were meant to be juxtaposed, and they are read exactly half a year apart. What is the key to understanding life? Kohelet's emptiness or Shir ha-Shirim's vision of harmony? Vanity or harmony? Accepting inevitable death, or defying it with the power of love?
Or is the answer in fact "none of the above," and that nature is the secret to a meaningful life? On this Earth Day, it's a fitting thought. Walt Whitman wrote in his work, "Specimen Days and Collect,
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons—the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night. We will begin from these convictions.
I've been reading the book, "The Sunny Nihilist: How a meaningless life can make you truly happy ," by Wendy Syfret. Fun reading to squeeze between hospital visits and funerals. Actually, it is surprisingly upbeat, much like Ecclesiastes. She sides with Walt Whitman, saying, "Like many millennials, I've found that accepting the futility of my small life has deepened my commitment to environmentalism. Understanding that the only constant is Earth itself, I find that its protection becomes more important than any singular interest of mine."
It comes down to our recognition of the impermanence of our lives - not only our mortality, but the understanding that within a century or two, all memory of our ever having existed will have vanished, though maybe that is now changing, given the digital footprints we can leave behind. So we look for those things that can extend our existences beyond our little lives, in both directions - deep into the past and far into the future. Communing with nature does that, as does protecting the planet. So, to a degree, does love. Love and legacy go hand in hand - the deeper the love, the stronger the impact, the more it extends beyond ourselves and our little lives. Mitzvot are also an extension of that love - for God, for humanity, for life itself. But is that enough to make life "meaningful"? Ecclesiastes says no. Song of Songs says emphatically, yes!
Post a Comment