Sunday, September 4, 2016

I, I And I

"Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes, his search for happiness, and mine. I spoke in chapter 4 about my first meeting, as a student, with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As I was waiting to go in, one of his disciples told me the following story. A man had recently written to the Rebbe on something of these lines: ‘I need the Rebbe’s help. I am deeply depressed. I pray and find no comfort. I perform the commands but feel nothing. I find it hard to carry on.’ The Rebbe, so I was told, sent a compelling reply without writing a single word. He simply ringed the first word in every sentence of the letter: the word ‘I’. It was, he was hinting, the man’s self-preoccupation that was at the root of his depression. It was as if the Rebbe were saying, as Viktor Frankl used to say in the name of Kierkegaard, ‘The door to happiness opens outward.’ It was this insight that helped me solve the riddle of Ecclesiastes. The word ‘I’ does not appear very often in the Hebrew Bible, but it dominates Ecclesiastes’ opening chapters. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. (Ecclesiastes 2:4–8) Nowhere else in the Bible is the first-person singular used so relentlessly and repetitively. In the original Hebrew the effect is doubled because of the chiming of the verbal suffix and the pronoun: Baniti li, asiti li, kaniti li, ‘I built for myself, I made for myself, I bought for myself.’ The source of Ecclesiastes’ unhappiness is obvious and was spelled out many centuries later by the great sage Hillel: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?’ Happiness in the Bible is not something we find in self-gratification. Hence the significance of the word simchah. I translated it earlier as ‘joy’, but really it has no precise translation into English, since all our emotion words refer to states of mind we can experience alone. Simchah is something we cannot experience alone. Simchah is joy shared.”