In December 1965, the 2,300-year-old words of Ecclesiastes vaulted to the top of the Billboard 100, thanks to a group of mellow rockers, The Byrds, crooning “To every thing there is a season.” That year, marked like this one with strife and division — the Selma march, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War — the clear-eyed pronouncements of a Biblical sage, situated near Proverbs and the Song of Songs, were steadying. On our radios those holiday weeks and well into 1966, with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” also vying for dominance, The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — its title from the 1959 version by Pete Seeger — offered no-nonsense philosophy with a beat: “A time to be born, and a time to die.” There was destruction, “a time to break down,” and restoration, “a time to build up.” I recall, going on 13, a sock hop where teens slow-danced to the ancient wisdom. Each of us, in our personal journeys, experiences “a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Today, more than most years, we also do so collectively.
When President-elect Joe Biden cited Ecclesiastes at his Nov. 7 acceptance speech — “The Bible tells us that to every thing there is a season. . . . This is the time to heal in America” — I was reminded how for me the verses had evolved from the personal to the public. In May 2019 I’d stood graveside at my sister Becky’s funeral in Mobile, Ala., honoring her request that we read Ecclesiastes: 3 1-8, the lines forever hers: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh / A time to mourn, and a time to dance.” As the pandemic raged in 2020, I spoke the words from the lectern of a Catholic funeral Mass, at the request of a friend whose wife had died of Alzheimer’s and whose grief was deepened by his having been kept from her during COVID. “A time to rend, and a time to sew.” In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, invited to give a Jewish meditation at an interfaith prayer march to my city’s Mobile Bay, I turned to the urgency of “A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” And as arguments erupted over masking and social distancing, I wanted to broadcast “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”
Intriguingly, Ecclesiastes’ identity remains uncertain. Some believe he was King Solomon, others an unknown teacher, Koheleth in Hebrew, which I find means preacher, or assembler of the people. As I take socially distanced walks along Mobile Bay, memorizing poems as a pandemic project, I have an image of an aging guru, sandaled and gray-bearded, gazing at the passing world in a way both loving and dyspeptic. Outside his Zen-consoling “To everything there is a season,” is his astringent “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” and “There is nothing new under the sun.”
The wise teacher, too, runs between extremes.
COVID anguish and vaccine optimism, violence in the streets and peaceful marches, civic despair and impassioned voting — each experience, each emotion, nests inside another. “A time to get, and a time to lose.” Hold on, be strong, move forward. “A time to cast out stones, and a time to gather stones together.”
There’s no telling at what moments the visionary’s insights will sustain us. I was scheduled to read a meditation inspired by Ecclesiastes at our virtual Rosh Hashanah service this fall, but Hurricane Sally devastated us, the power and Internet out for many days. We postponed our start to the year 5781. On the Jewish New Year, in a hurricane in a pandemic in a political maelstrom, alone I stepped outside — the chaos of downed trees was everywhere, but the storm had passed. The evening, no electric light to compete, was velvety, clearing. “A time for peace.”
Roy Hoffman is author of the novel “Come Landfall,” and the essay collection “Alabama Afternoons.” He’s completing a new novel, “The Promise of the Pelican.”