The ancient text known as Qohelet in the Hebrew Bible or Ecclesiastes in the Christian Old Testament offers us one of the most beautiful reflections on life lived in the light of death that has ever been composed. One of the key images is the tension between havel havalim — merest breath — and ruah — life-breath, or wind; between life which is fleeting, insubstantial, and yet possessing an animating force that, while just as elusive, is endlessly active.
Here are some extracts, from Robert Alter’s translation:
Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.
What gain is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun.
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and to its place it glides, there it rises.
It goes to the south and swings round to the north, round and round goes
the wind, and on its rounds the wind returns.
I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere
breath, and herding the wind.
(Qohelet 1:2-6, 14)
And recall your Creator in the days of your
prime, until the days of evil come, and the years arrive, when you will say,
“I have no delight in them.” Until the sun goes dark, and the light and the
moon and the stars, and the clouds come back after the rain.
On the day that the guards of the house will quake
and the stalwart men be twisted,
and the maids who grind grow idle, for they are now few,
and those who look up from the casements go dark.
and the double doors close in the market
as the sound of the mill sinks down,
and the sound of the bird arises,
and all the songstresses are bowed.
Of the very height they are afraid,
and terror is in the road.
And the almond blossoms,
and the locust tree is laden,
and the caper fruit falls apart.
For man is going to his everlasting house,
and the mourners turn round in the market.
Until the silver cord is snapped,
and the golden bowl is smashed,
and the pitcher is broken against the well,
and the jug smashed at the pit.
And dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the life-breath returns to God Who gave it.
Merest breath, said Qohelet. All is mere breath.
(Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, The Writings, pp. 679-681, 706-708)