Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב ): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS.

Could "All" Be in Vain? A Liturgical Response to Ecclesiastes

The opening words of the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) have troubled those who read the Bible for a very long time, and remain a challenge—ancient, but still provocative. "Havel havalim, . . . hakol havel" (In vain, in vain, . . . it is all futility) (Eccles. 1, 2). Last week we began to look at the passage "mah anu meh chayyeinu" found in the preliminary service (daily and Shabbat), and I noted the extraordinary feature of this "prayer"—the questions included within the text (Who are we? What is our life? etc.). If we think of prayer as addressed to God, it is remarkable to find within this prayer that we ourselves are questioned. The final words of the paragraph (in the Ashkenazic version) bring us face to face with the troubling opening of Ecclesiastes: "ki hakol havel" ("because everything is futile" or "because everything is in vain").

How can our liturgy place this depressing, even nihilistic, assertion upon our lips every day? We might understand a prayer that opened with these words and offered some way forward, or even some refutation, but this text is the opposite. Rabbi Simon Greenberg (z"l), a beloved professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary, offers a daring solution embraced by the translation in Siddur Sim Shalom. He suggests that the words of Ecclesiastes are intended as a foil, as a "straw man" proposition that we are to reject. The final sentence of our prayer seems to read: "Even the superiority of humans over the beasts is nothing because (ki) everything is futile." Based upon his deep scholarship of Hebrew language, Greenberg proposes that the word ki, generally translated as because (a declarative), should in this case be translated as if (a conditional), bringing us to a very different reading: "Even the superiority of humans over the beasts is futile if (ki) everything is futile."

Now we have a choice—and an invitation each day, presented by our liturgy, to make that choice. If the nihilistic proposition that "all is futility" is true, then there is nothing of worth in our human superiority to the beasts, for indeed there is nothing worthwhile. But if we reject that view—if even on the worst days of our lives, we can reject nihilism and find even one source of meaning and worth in the world—then we turn away from Ecclesiastes, and we affirm that humanity is indeed superior to the beasts, and that we can find and offer answers to the deep questions of our life.

My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, approached this paragraph differently, by offering answers (printed on the page) to each question drawn from different traditional sources.

What are we?

Without our consent we are born, and without our consent we live, and without our consent we die, and without our consent we will have to give a reckoning before the King above the king of kings, the blessed Holy One. (Pirkei Avot)

What is our life?

Everyone must have two pockets, so as to be able to reach into one or the other according to need. In the right pocket are to be the words: "For my sake the world was created," and in the left pocket: "I am but dust and ashes." (Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha)

What is our power?

Thus says God: Let not the wise boast of their wisdom, nor the mighty of their strength or the wealthy of their riches; but if someone must boast, let it be about this: that they understand and know Me. (Jer. 9:22-23)

Whether we follow Magonet or Greenberg (or any other approach), I suggest that this modest paragraph invites us all to affirm each day our own worth, and that there is purpose to our lives.

The challenging words "Havel havelim . . . hakol havel," from the opening of Ecclesiastes, are presented below in a contemporary musical arrangement by Basya Schechter and her band, Pharoah's Daughter.

As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.