Updated: Jan 7, 2021
What’s the point of life?
People actually google this; we are so desperately seeking meaning and truth.
(Sometimes. Sometimes we seek ice cream and area rugs.)
The book of Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, which we have the practice to read during the Sukkoth holiday, chronicles how King Solomon, Shlomo, grappled with this question.
A running theme of the book is the phrase: “hakol hevel”- all is ‘hevel.’
But what is “hevel?”
It’s usually translated as “vanity” but that’s not accurate.
It really means, air. Not random air, but air that is breathed by humans.
Air is vital for existence, but it doesn’t have inherent value; it’s a necessary fuel for living. What we do with the air we breathe, how we utilized our oxygen by transforming it into cognition, words, and actions, that’s what defines and expresses our uniqueness, our humanity, and our choices. Hitler breathed air and heroes breathe air. Air is everywhere, and necessary, but it’s only a tool in the hand of the artist.
King Shlomo says that ultimately, everything is like that: a neutrally charged tool that can be utilized and molded by our free will.
I love linguistics (I majored in abstract linguistics in college, because I liked the schedule of classes.)
Biblical linguistics offers a deeper dimension of philosophy; words and letters have layers of meaning and symbolism.
The Hebrew word hevel is one of those awesome words whose letters have meaning in every permutation.
It’s comprised of three Hebrew letters, so they can rearrange into a total of 9 words.
Let’s take a look at all these words and see how their complexity plugs back into the verse and answers our original question:
The first thing we notice is that the word is exactly the same as Abel, the victim of the first homicide. We don’t know a lot about Abel, other than what he did for a living and that he outshone his brother’s offering and was killed for it. Dying before he could self-actualize means that he is a symbol of unfulfilled potential.
Hold on to that thought…
One version of the letters means “anxiety” or “hurry.” Murray Bowen, one of the founders of family therapy opines that anxiety is the protoplasm in which humanity floats. It is chronic and ubiquitous, and our task is to navigate and channel this existential angst and urgency within relationships and functioning.
Another arrangement means “flame.” King Solomon also teaches that: “the flame of G-d is the soul of man.” Fire represents the soul: energy, passion, light, heat, and spirituality.
Two of those words mean “heart.” The Talmud teaches us that:
“Our compassionate G-d wants ‘heart.’” G-d cares about our intention and our feelings, even when our actions don’t always follow through.
Another version of the letters means to spend, as in using or investing time, energy, money, or resources.
Now, let’s loop it all together: (Are you still with me? This is heavy stuff…)
“What’s the point of everything in life, in the world?” asks King Solomon
He answers: “It’s all hevel.” Great, but what does that mean?
It’s all potential energy waiting to manifest. It’s infinite molecules in their excited, anxious states- in all different forms of existence, hustling, heating, exchanging currency, resonating, always vibrating. It’s fire- a mystical combination of physical and spiritual, fuel, and passion. It’s heart- it’s emotion, it’s love, it’s connection and intention. And it ultimately boils down to choices- how we spend these priceless resources: time, energy, matter, wisdom, and consciousness.
That’s what the cumulative meaning of “hevel” is and the ultimate epistemological secret - what each and every one of us chooses to make of it each moment and over the arch of a lifetime. It could be vanity and futility, or it can be as vital as respiration. It’s totally our call.
If you're considering therapy to help you get more focused in your life, you might want to check this out.