In “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] Martin Schuster fights frozen terminology. The opening to Ecclesiastes we know, in English, to be “Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity.” But apparently the Hebrew is less moralistic. “All is breath, breath, all is breath.” Or if I were to take some liberty, “All is but a breeze, dust blown over the plains, a puff disappearing into air.”
In any case, “Vanity” suggests a verdict, a moral condemnation, resting on a hard-as-ice notion of what is wrong with the world (or our conception of it). Its target is Pretention and Self-inflation. But what if the opening lines were “ontological” rather than moralistic and accusatory? What if the lines are heard as evoking the breathiness of things, the idea that all vanishes as a frosty breath exhaled on a wintery Syracuse day? The puff of air reminds us of the warmth of lungs, of life. Its vanishing into air reminds us that we can not cling to the moments that are life — as if they could coagulate into diamonds or should be subjected to a quick-freeze and put on a shelf.
If all is breath that vanishes in a puff, it can still be a beautiful puff, and can be followed by another, like one note after another, with musical spacing and allowance for dying off. And always a new note, so long as we live. Life is the in and out of breath, dissolving of one and miraculous upsurge of another. Thank God It’s not the hard-edge box defined by the obstetrician recording the first intake and the medical examiner recording the absence of breath — with eternity before and behind; the limits of life are a poor indication of the ongoing-ness, the music of life.
Our being is to breath out into the chill air, to marvel at its puff and disappearance, and to let the new breath come from nowhere, feeling joy all along at the passing of all things — not despite their passing. The innocence of the breath into the chill air is, perhaps, like the innocence of the note played that dies out, and is like the innocence of the lily or the bird, who come and go, as breath breaks into the air and dissolves.
And we know this only as we become as little children who marvel at a bubble rising in the air, or at the puff of breath that disappears (to be replaced by another). For wisdom is NOT mastery of a new lexicon, or a grasping at the remnants of a scholastic system, or thinking that the way to unfreeze scholasticism is to find an ice-hammer to cling to. Most difficult is staying with the elusiveness, the musicality, of ‘breath’ and ‘vapor,’ not letting a Greek conceptual abstraction stamp out the fluid poetry of the Hebrew. We don’t need to replace it with lexical dead woods we can memorize for a test, as if biblical wisdom were memorizing all of Aquinas.
There’s no sense in trying to grasp and package breath before it vanishes — rushing to theology or metaphysics. It’s actually fortunate that that burst (or whisper) of breath is not the hard rock we wanted to put on the shelf [“diamonds are forever”].