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A world that is entirely long
by Sr Eliana, c.d.b
Who can possibly know what is good for man in life, during the short span of his futile existence, which he should consider like a shadow; who can tell a man what will be after him beneath the sun. Kohelet 6:12

Many years ago somebody told me that Midrash Rabbah contains some of the most profound insights ever written on the Book of Kohelet. Having been questioned and even challenged by the shortness of human life, I decided one day to embark on the adventure of discovering the wisdom of Midrash and its insights concerning Kohelet.

Who hasn’t heard an exhortation on the shortness of life? Who hasn’t asked themselves about the value of their own life? Catholics will remember the wisdom of their saints. Saint John of the Cross used the famous “nada” (nothing) metaphor to express that during this short time on earth we should be attached to nothing and nobody else but God, the source of all love. Saint John Vianney said that “If we were required to die twice, we could jettison one death. But man dies once only, and upon this death depends his eternity.” Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote: “I only look at the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future.”

The Book of Kohelet and the commentaries of Midrash tie in nicely with what these saints tried to express. Life can be perceived as a fleeting shadow. But is that really all we can say of it?

Midrash’s commentary on the verse quoted above states that man’s days can be compared to a bird (R’ Huna) or to bees (Shmuel). These flying creatures create shadows that race along the ground, ethereal in their tininess and in their fleetness. R’ Simchah Zissel Ziv contrasts fleeting time in this world with our existence in the next world, a world that the Sages describe as a world that is entirely long (Kiddushin 39b)[1]. The expression entirely long here conveys the meaning of being “above time.”

Apparently, the shadow of the bird represents not a human life span but rather the way we experience life in this world, a world governed by time. In this world, we cannot actually feel pleasures experienced a moment ago which, from our perspective, are now a fading memory. Nor do we feel the pleasures about to occur, since the future has not yet materialised. Thus, we experience life only a moment at a time, in the single instant called “the present which passes like the fleeting shadow of a bird in flight.” (Ohr Reshaz on Devarim) [2]

What is the challenge then for us living in the world? Indeed, knowing that we cannot die twice, we try not to forestall the future. Saint John of the Cross wrote that at the end of our lives we will be judged on love and so we try to spread God’s love and mercy in the world as long as we are here. Jewish tradition tells us that there are precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are honouring one’s parents, acts of kindness, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride and the studying of Torah. (Shabbos 127a)[3].  

R’ Simchah Zissel says that:

“We cannot hold back the fleeting shadows of time in this world. But we can invest them with meaning and purpose. And by doing so, those fleeting shadows will leave in their wake eternal moments that will last forever in the world that is entirely long.”

Our goodness, every single gesture of tzedakah, everything that we write and share with others can leave an eternal mark. This is a very hopeful and comforting thought, meaning that God takes every one of our good actions, thoughts and prayers and invests eternity with their beautiful aroma and colour. They will remain there not only in the memory of those who come after us, but they have already enriched the reality beyond time and space.

[1] ”Midrash Rabbah, Koheles”, Kleinman Edition, Mesorah Publications Ltd, New York 2015.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.