Life in the Shadows / Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot

The days of a person’s life are like a passing shadow, in contrast with God’s eternality.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Solomon and the Plan for the Temple' from an illustrated Bible card.
'Solomon and the Plan for the Temple' from an illustrated Bible card.Credit: Providence Lithograph Company (1896).
Yakov Z. Meyer

The sages attributed three books to King Solomon, the wisest of all men − the Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes − and attributed one to his father, King David: the Book of Psalms. Through these books, the sages sought to trace the biographies of the two great men. Indeed, certain verses in Solomon’s books were thought to describe central events in his life: He is described as an old, wise monarch who looks back on his years of toil with his eyes wide open. By contrast, the sages see David, through the prism of the Book of Psalms, as the perfect believer, who maintains faith in God against all odds and despite all circumstances.

While such information about the father and son are gleaned from their writings, one midrash traces the relationship between the two as authors. In Ecclesiastes (Kohelet‏) Rabbah, the following midrash appears: “Rabbi Huna, citing Rabbi Acha, stated: David said something that he did not interpret but which his son Solomon interpreted. Similarly, Solomon said something that he did not interpret but which his father David interpreted. David wrote: ‘Man is like unto a breath' [vapor or steam (Psalms 144:4‏). To what kind of vapor is man compared? If he is compared to the vapor of an oven, that vapor has substance; if to the vapor of a stove-top, that vapor has substance.

“Along comes Solomon and interprets the verse, as it is written, ‘Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth’ [literally vapor of vapors] ‏(Ecclesiastes 1:2‏). Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman, citing Rabbi Joshua, son of Karcha, taught thus: ‘It is similar to a person who places seven pots on the fire. The pots are on top of each other; the vapor from the upper one has no substance.’ Solomon writes: ‘For who knoweth what is good for man in his life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow?’ ‏(Eccles. 6:12‏). To what kind of shadow is man likened? If man is like the shadow of a wall, that shadow has substance; if he is like the shadow of a palm tree, that shadow has substance. Along comes David and interprets the verse: ‘His days are as a shadow that passeth away’ ‏(Pss. 144:4‏). Rabbi Huna, citing Rabbi Acha, said: ‘Like a bird that flies by and whose shadow flies by along with it.’ Samuel said: ‘Like the shadow of bees; their shadow has no substance at all’” ‏(Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:2‏).

The sages customarily remove a verse from its context and plant it in another context to create intertextual interpretations that transcend the boundaries of the books of the Bible. That is what they do here: merging verses from Psalms and Ecclesiastes. However, there is a surprising twist in this technique here, because what emerges is a lively conversation between father and son. The symmetrical relationship described in this midrash is one in which each figure is both an independent poet and also the interpreter of the poetry of the other. David and Solomon, each in his own way, sought to create an image that would essentially negate man, turning him into something that has no substance; however, each chooses an image that leaves room for interpretation.

For instance, the term “vapor” can be interpreted here as a vapor that emerges from an oven or as that produced by a stove-top, while “shadow” is explained as the shadow of a wall or of a palm tree. The father and son thus take turns using the image of the other within his own concretization of that image. Solomon transforms vapor into “vanity of vanities,” while David sees the shadow as a passing shadow.

Tightening the margins of the metaphor, David and Solomon are emerging to the limits of the human being; from now on, man cannot quantify himself or turn himself into the vapor or shadow of something. Through this intertextual dialogue, the temporality of a person, his nonexistence, reaches a climax of abstraction. Nonetheless, there are no complete, precise interpretations here per se, because Solomon’s explication of the words of his father David and the latter’s explication of the words of his son are rooted in the particular contexts in which they are created.

In his writing, David observes that “Man is likeunto a breath [vapor or steam]” − thereby reducing man’s image vis-a-vis God, “who givest salvation unto kings” ‏(Pss. 144:10‏). Solomon’s interpretation describes not only man but all things: “Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity” ‏(Eccles. 1:2‏). Thus, he can ask, “What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” ‏(Eccles. 1:3‏). The nonexistence of man is not caused by his negligible nature in the presence of God, but rather because of the vanity and insubstantially of all creation. This also holds true in the second example. Since there is no way of knowing what will happen to man, Solomon asks, “For who knoweth what is good for man in his life... ?”

This is the life allotted to man; however, no one can know the number of the “days of his vain life.” Thus, the best thing man can do is to spend them “as a shadow.” He should see his life as a passing shadow and should enjoy life as much as possible in real time. This interpretation, presented by Rabbi Joseph Kara, is confirmed at the end of the verse, with the words: “for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?” ‏(Eccles. 6:12‏). Solomon leaves man an ethical final will and testament, and man must see his life as it really is − as a shadow. However, David’s interpretation is given not in the context of an ethical command, but rather in that of an existential description: The days of a person’s life are like a passing shadow, in contrast with God’s eternality.

Solomon’s viewpoint is sophisticated: He commands man to see his life as a passing shadow, and thus actually instructs man to look at his life not from a human perspective but rather from a divine one. Solomon calls on man to open his eyes and to see the general context in which he lives, to look at his life, for a moment, from the outside. This broad perspective leads Solomon to reassess life in general and, in particular, to reconsider what man can do to derive benefit from life: “Wherefore I perceived that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion; for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?” ‏(Eccles. 3:22‏).

David’s insight − that a person’s life is just a passing shadow − is not an element in a more effective, corrective way of looking at the world, but is rather part of the process whereby man is negated when praying before God: “Lord, what is man, that Thou takest knowledge of him? or the son of man, that Thou makest account of him? Man is like unto a breath; his days are as a shadow that passeth away. O Lord, bow Thy heavens, and come down; touch the mountains, that they may smoke. Cast forth lightning, and scatter them; send out Thine arrows, and discomfit them. Stretch forth Thy hands from on high; rescue me, and deliver me out of many waters, out of the hand of strangers; Whose mouth speaketh falsehood, and their right hand is a right hand of lying” ‏(Pss. 144:3-8‏).

David is blinded by God’s greatness and completely negates himself, standing there before his Maker, bereft of any substance; the only thing David has at his immediate disposal is his voice, that of someone praying: “O God, I will sing a new song unto Thee, upon a psaltery of ten strings will I sing praises unto Thee” ‏(Pss. 144:9‏). Whereas David disappears when he stands before God, Solomon adopts God’s perspective and thereby creates a reflexive assessment of his life.

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