The end of the matter, all things being heard: Revere God and observe his commandments, for this is the sum of human life.
With this verse, the liturgical reading of Ecclesiastes comes to an end; the penultimate verse is repeated so as to underscore the fullest expression of human possibility and dignity. In a midrash, God uses the second half of the verse to underscore the mortal constraints on the human spirit. In the matter of living on beyond the Jordan, God says to Moses, You cannot prevail for this is the sum of human life.
The poet, Yehuda Amichai, dips his pen into the sober colors of the Ecclesiastes’ verse. Fragility is in the air when his daughter is drafted into the Israeli army:
The end of the matter, all things being heard. Now even my daughter
is drafted into the army. Now it’s even her face in the window
of the bus slowly pulling away. Now it’s even her face
in the corner of the window, like stamps on letters, like her brother.
Oh, those stamps, those letters
to be sent and to send. Oh, the names and the addresses
and the numbers and the colorful stamps and the faces.
And the hand-cancel seals that resound with the hollow ring of fate.
(Click here for the poem, Talmud, and Midrash in Hebrew and English)
For the poet, the bus window becomes the envelope posted to its destination. His daughter’s face is the stamp joining other stamp-faces, like that of her brother. Each brightly colored stamp-face is a small, colorful, part-for-whole of memory, history, and pride artfully made. Addresses and numbers can be written clearly; but it is the stamp, the brief, finely wrought glimpse of home that enables the send-off. Between the stamp and the address there is the journey.
The Hebrew word for stamp, bul, has made its own journey. In the language of ancient rabbinic sages, a bul was a block or a lump—sometimes of sand or salt when either is exposed to fire:
One sage asked: In what way shall Israel be like the sand of the sea (Hosea 2:1)? It is a property of sand that if one puts it into the fire, one brings out lumps from which glass vessels are made. Just so, when those of Israel enter the fire, they come out alive.
Such was the case with Daniel’s three companions, tried in the fiery furnace by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. They emerged honored and elevated, each one a bul transformed by the fire.
A bul of salt changes the fire. The sages taught: We can put a lump of salt in a lamp to help it burn brightly. Each living bul is unique in its own fires—reflective, colorful, sometimes transparent; serviceable and fragile, brightening the world around it in a unique way.
Regardless of its strength and beauty, the human bul does not survive forever, although Moses might have thought so. Certainly, those who live to wondrously old age make us think that mortality might occasionally overlook us. But as God said to Moses and as Amichai said while reflecting on his daughter’s face in the window: This is the sum of human life.
We each hope to recognize and to honor the stamp from which we came. We also aspire to write (with our own hands) the address to which we travel. And what comes after the hand-cancel seal that marks safe delivery of those whom we love? The end of the matter, all things being heard, we now have the obligation and honor to read the letter.
(In memory of Rabbi Tobias Rothenberg, a passionate advocate for Israeli stamps and for the educational opportunities that they present. He died at age 95 on 16 Menachem Av, the month whose name means consoling father, 5776.)
I am sure Toby would have truly enjoyed your moving blend of your passion for Torah and poetry and the sensitivity that brings it alive in lives like he and Ethel lived.
Thanks for a beautiful homage and reflection. And, I can’t resist saying it’s even a great title! Thanks, again.
Many thanks for associating my father with this piece. He surely would have been both honored and flattered.