Imagine you and a lover are trying to save your relationship, which is in danger of ending due to apathy and wandering eyes. You recite love poetry, even the Song of Songs, to each other, but to little effect. The endless metaphors about the fullness of being together versus the emptiness of being apart ring hollow.
You love each other more than you love your relationship, so you start to ask a new question: What would be the best possible lives each of us could lead if we were to break up? You fill in the blanks with what to the best of your understanding is the best of everything.
The wisdom of Solomon is commonly understood by Christians as a tough but ultimately charitable account of human frailty. Though expressions of “all is vanity” can be found throughout Hellenistic and Indian thought, Ecclesiastes’ place in the Bible has made it the go-to book for Christians exploring this worldview.
As received by USA pop culture, “to everything there is a season,” “que sera, sera,” and “namaste” are all synonyms for “chill.” “All is Vanity” would make for a fine motto to slap on credit cards.
Learned as the Jewish Kohelet rather than read as the Christian and/or philosophical Ecclesiastes, the book presents the best of all possible lives without Torah: a life of ardent, earnest pursuit of knowledge and experience that culminates in a feeling of passive contentment.
Without Torah, human beings can make the world no better or worse than it ever has been or will be. There can be no assurance of life after death, either as an afterlife or a remembrance of one’s name and accomplishments. It’s foolish to expect too much of the tool-making featherless biped. “To everything there is a season…” refers to the variety of experiences one goes through amidst life’s ups and downs.
With Torah, every human action has eternal consequences. One’s possessions, family, and reputation may or may not endure, but the mitzvot one has performed, which contribute to the constant renewal of creation and revelation, are eternal. “To everything there is a season…” refers to the sanctification of time through mitzvot.
The lovers conclude that the best of everything apart would be nothing compared to an ordinary or even an unpleasant moment together. Thus has the relationship between YHVH and Israel endured millennia of apathy and wandering eyes.
And the old school version…
And the really really old school version (“To everything…” starts at 16:13 and ends at 18:02)