The opening to Ecclesiastes is “Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity” – in English. Apparently the Hebrew is less moralistic. “All is breath, breath, all is breath.” Or with poetic license:
“All is but a breeze, dust blown over the plains, a puff disappearing into air.”
“Vanity” suggests a verdict, a moral condemnation, resting on a hard notion of what is wrong with a world full of Pretension and Self-inflation. But what if the opening lines were not moralistic and accusatory? What if they evoke the breathiness of things: all vanishes as would a frosty breath exhaled on a wintry day on Casco Bay?
The puff of air reminds us of the warmth of lungs, of life. Its vanishing into air reminds us that we cannot cling to the moments that are life — as if they could coagulate into diamonds and put on a shelf.
All is breath that vanishes in a puff. It can be a beautiful puff. That first puff, followed by another, like one note after another, with musical spacing and allowance for dying off. And always a new note, a new breath, so long as we live.
Life is the exhale and inhale of breath, breath dissolving and miraculously surging up. It’s not the hard-edge verdicts of an obstetrician recording the first intake, and the medical examiner noting the end of breath. The limits of life are a poor indication of the ongoing music of life.
I breath out into chill air, marvel at the puff and disappearance, and let the new breath come from nowhere, feeling joy all along at the passing of all things. The innocence of a breath into chill air is the innocence of a note played that dies out. It’s like the innocence of the lily or the bird, who come and go. Breath breaks into air and dissolves.
And we know this as we become little children who marvel at a bubble rising in the air. We marvel at the puff that disappears (to be replaced by another). Wisdom is a child’s marvel. No need to master a new lexicon, or scholastic system. We need to stay with the elusiveness, the musicality, of ‘breath’ and ‘vapor,’ replacing Greek abstractions with the fluid poetry of the Hebrew. “All is breath.” Why replace this with lexical dead wood.
It’s fruitless to try to grasp and package breath before it vanishes — to rush to theology or metaphysics. It’s fortunate that that a burst (or whisper) of breath is not a hard rock to preserve on on the shelf. Life is neither rock nor diamond but the elusive musicality of breath.
*See Martin Schuster’s “Being as Breath, Vapor as Joy: Using Martin Heidegger to Re-Read the Book of Ecclesiastes,” [Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 2008]. I veer off quickly with my own poetic take on being and breath.