Last night wasn’t much fun. Around 6.00pm, I started getting aches in my joints. Within a couple of hours, I was shaking and shivering and felt alternately hot and cold. It seemed like I was having side effects from the COVID vaccine, as my body started an immune response. It got worse across the evening. I started crying uncontrollably at times, triggered by all kinds of thoughts: happy or sad, religious or secular or even just trivial. I tried to go to bed around midnight, but was shaking too much to sleep and just lay in bed for two hours. There didn’t seem much point in getting up, as I wasn’t well enough to read and, being Shabbat, I wasn’t able to watch a DVD.
I think I must have dozed off around 2.00am, but I woke up again after an hour or so. I was very thirsty, but so tired that it took me well over an hour to get the energy to get up to get a drink. By this stage the shaking had temperature changes had stopped, but I was getting a headache, one of the type I get where lying down makes it worse, so I sat up for a while. I took some solpadeine and tried to read, but reading just made the headache worse and made me feel that I was going to throw up, so I just sat in the dark for an hour. Eventually the headache lessened and I went back to bed. It was no surprise that I slept through the morning this time or that I slept for two and a half hours in the afternoon (nearly missing Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Seudah Shlishit (the third Sabbath meal)). By lunch time I was a lot better, although I still have a bit of achiness in my joints.
I was actually OK at spending all this time alone in my head with no books, music or TV to distract myself. I think I’m mostly OK about being in my own head these days without falling in to loneliness, self-loathing or despair. I thought a lot about religious/Torah topics; my thoughts tend to naturally drift this way on Shabbat (the Sabbath). I tried to stay reasonably upbeat, and I know that it just means that the vaccine is doing its work and its nothing to worry about.
There’s a lot on my mind tonight, but most of it will have to wait, as it’s late and I should try to get to bed soon, although my sleep is even more disordered than usual now. However, there’s something I’ve been thinking about all week, and was thinking about when sick last night, and I thought I would share it.
For the last week I’ve been reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) with a brief commentary from Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl in his Sukkot Machzor (Prayerbook for the Tabernacles festival) as well as an essay on the book published in the same Machzor. Kohelet is often seen as a deeply downbeat book, its first significant verse (after an introductory one) being translated by The King James Bible as “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” This is a bad translation. It doesn’t help that “vanity” in a sixteenth century context means something worthless rather than something self-focused, but either way “vanity” is a very poor translation for a word that in Hebrew means “breath.” Rabbi Sacks translates as “Shallowest breath, said Kohelet; the shallowest breath, it is all but breath.” It is a book about the fragility of life; the living are just one breath away from the dead and everything is as insubstantial as breath.
The narrator of the book relates at length the inability of wisdom, wealth, or sex to provide any lasting meaning or joy. Ultimately, everything, even wisdom, passes on the day of death. Moreover, the world is a deeply unjust place, where the wicked thrive and the righteous suffer. So the book has a reputation for being downbeat and not obviously “religious.”
Interspersed between these passages, however, are statements that one should try to experience joy and live a God-fearing life. These are so unlike the bulk of the book that it has been suggested that the author wanted to tone down his negative tirade and appear superficially religious to avoid being suppressed, or that they were the work of a later pious or worried editor. However, Rabbi Sacks notes that there are seven of these interpolations; it is an established principle of Jewish hermeneutics that seven-fold repetitions in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) are always significant.
Rabbi Sacks suggests that the interpolations are the key to the book. While life is largely negative, one can still experience moments of joy by living in the moment and enjoying the “simple pleasures of life” that come our way, whether monogamous love and honest work or simply food and drink. Rabbi Sacks says that happiness depends on external factors and may be impossible, but joy “lives in the moment” and is essentially shared with others.
In Rabbi Sacks’ view Kohelet is about living in the moment in a deeply imperfect and unhappy world. This intrigued me and I’ve been thinking about it all week. While I don’t think it would have helped me when I was clinically depressed, I’ve been trying lately (before this) to be a bit more mindful and present-focused and this has just increased my desire to do that.
Is Kohelet’s joy of living in the moment the Jewish equivalent of mindfulness? I don’t know. I see it as being very different to “toxic positivity” though. Toxic positivity denies the reality of suffering and evil, whereas Kohelet spends a long time talking about its reality, whether the fact that we will die and all our wisdom will vanish with us or the fact that the world is full of injustice and oppression and clearly not a utopia. Joy for Kohelet is about living despite suffering rather than denying it, and still finding reasons to keep going.