“Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas est.”
Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher — all is vanity.
What is vanity? The Hebrew word is “hevel”.
It has been translated as futility. Absurdity. Emptiness.
The grandson of Rashi says “hevel” means something like incomprehensibility or ineffability. Something we can engage with and care about but not encompass with the rational mind.
Very soon after telling us everything is “hevel” Koheleth tells us to every thing there is a season. A time to live and a time to die.
He doesn’t say, but I believe he is thinking, a time to inhale and a time to exhale.
The rivers go into the sea but the sea is never full. And that’s good. Breath goes into the lungs but the lungs don’t get full. The job of the lungs is to circulate the oxygen, not to hoard it.
Kohelet talks about the foolishness of the rich man who accumulates for himself. And the futility of the wise man who learns for himself. Because money and knowledge only work when circulating, like breath. Knowledge is worth something if I communicate it, but if I keep it hoarded within me it is utterly useless.
Since Kohelet believes in God but doesn’t believe we understand him, I think he means by “hevel” the breath of God.
And by “God” he means that of which our brief lives are the breath, whatever that may be. (Can your breath understand you? Probably not. But you sure need it!)
There is a time to exhale — when God breathes us into being — and a time to inhale — when we are drawn back into God. “The life’s breath returns to God who gave it.”