From Clenched Fist to Open Hand

The ancient sages disputed whether the troubled and troubling book, Ecclesiastes, should have a place among the holy writings.  Sages who appreciated its value suggested that Ecclesiastes charted a course through the thicket of life, blazing an articulate path through emotions and thoughts for which tradition had no voice, until Ecclesiastes came.  These sages said:  To what may Ecclesiastes be compared?  It may be compared to a river thick with reeds that no one could navigate until one sage came along and cut a path through it, marking it for use by others.

Once included among the holy writings, the Sages drew Ecclesiastes into the vital conversation that they called oral Torah, a conversation connecting sacred texts to lived experience.  The oral Torah conversation presumes that the holy text tells the truth and nothing but the truth.  But the sacred text cannot tell the whole truth, as the fixed and written word lacks the dimension brought by experience.  The oral Torah of the sages is a conversation that negotiates the distance between the fixed, sacred text and lived experience.

Rabbi Meir, a great sage of the 2nd century, engages the following observation of Ecclesiastes: As one came naked from his mother’s womb he will return as he came and will take nothing of his toil with him…so what is the good of his toiling…? (Ecclesiastes 5:14-15).  Here is tradition’s record of Rabbi Meir’s conversation with Ecclesiastes:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Meir:  When one comes into the world his hands are clenched as if to say: the whole world is mine and I will inherit it.  And when one takes leave of the world his hands are open as if to say:  I have not taken from this world a single thing (Ecclesiastes Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 5:14).  (Click here for this midrash in Hebrew and English)

We enter the conversation between Scripture and sage by imagining what prompts Rabbi Meir’s response to the verse.  Perhaps Rabbi Meir objects that Ecclesiastes’ matter-of-fact observation undermines aspirations for living.  True, there is symmetry of coming and going from the world.  But, Rabbi Meir observes, it is not a perfect symmetry.  Life unfolds between a clenched fist and an open hand.  The open hand is the evidence of life unfolded, of growth—of learning to hold by letting go.  Aspire towards openhandedness.

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