The Book of Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew, “Kohelet,” the Assembler or Preacher) is a compilation of proverbs traditionally attributed to and worthy of Solomon. Its opening in the King James translation is instantly memorable:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity
As the Oxford Jewish Study Bible puts it, “the one thing that is clear for Kohelet is death.”
How can we construct positive interpretations of this no doubt realistic but unhappy view of life? I’ll take two of Kohelet’s proverbs on death and try to put a good spin on them, in the spirit of rabbinic midrash, which insists that dark biblical sayings must be understood in a manner compatible with the positive disposition of Judaism toward life before death.
As the literary instrument of my interpretations I’ll use a shortened version of the rondeau, an old French poetic form in which the first line is repeated in subsequent stanzas. The meaning is hinted at initially, and fully revealed only in the iterations. Consequently, the rondeau is an excellent means of forcing a writer to think through the meaning of a proverb. My first selection of a proverb on death is Kohelet 7:4:
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.
So following my plan, I will take the unpalatable thought of this verse as the opening of a rondeau and, using the form and the demands and suggestions of rhyme, try to force it into an interpretation I can live with, which of course must also be an understanding of the text compatible with its literal meaning. The biblical verse is in italics in its first appearance because it is a quote, but is not in italics in the iterations because it has, through interpretation, become my own thought:
THE HOUSES OF MIRTH AND MOURNING
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth. Wisdom is in you as a joke is dawning. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning where it dawns on them it’s death that wit is scorning. Wit must contain its rue to have true worth. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.
We all have heard jokes containing no hint of what Yeats called “the desolation of reality,” told by people who have no trace of the melancholy necessary to a good clown.
My second proverb is Kohelet 7:8
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning and the patient in spirit is better than the proud.
The rabbis of the collection of midrashim in Kohelet Rabbah had several explanations of the first line, strung together by a phrase that is one of the glories of the rabbinic mind, “another interpretation.” Anonymous rabbis are quoted as providing the following illustrations of our line, among others: A man can commit evil deeds in his youth but in his old age can perform good deeds. A man can learn Torah in his youth and forget it, but in his old age can return to it.
These interpretations, while perfectly reasonable in their way, are too pious for me, and too incompatible with my sense of the mordant disposition of Kohelet himself. Playing around with the first line and the demands of rhyme, I got something I consider more in the spirit of Kohelet:
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning. It’s only at the end our skull is always grinning.
But what about the enigmatic second line of our proverb? To help me think, I made use of an old rabbinic interpretative technique, the pun. The word “patient” can mean both a quality of forbearance and a person in the care of a physician, which patient is better off exhibiting forbearance than being too proud, particularly (to introduce a biographical note) if he’s not as young as he used to be. And so,
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning And the patient in spirit is better than the proud. It’s only at the end our skull is always grinning. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning: memento mori is our underpinning; pride makes the patient still in spirit laugh aloud. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning and the patient in spirit is better than the proud.
After all, we shouldn’t always be grinning if it’s death that wit is scorning and we still have enough spirit in us to enjoy life, even if we accept what’s coming without the interference of pride. As it is said,
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.
David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.