Pavel Zuštiak’s newest dance-theatre work, Hebel, takes its title from a Hebrew word in the biblical book Ecclesiastes. A roomy word, it contains multitudes. Occurring 38 times within the span of a rather short work, the author wanted to make a point.
The King James translation of 1611 renders hebel as “vanity,” as in the well-known platitude: “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (1:2) More recent translations of the text proffer “futile,” “insubstantial,” or even “meaningless.” A 21st-century Hebrew-Engish lexicon lists hebel as “breath,” “vapor,” or “mist.” But “vapor, vapor; all is vapor” doesn’t really trip off the tongue. Frustratingly, moving words from one language to another can leave one grasping at hebel.
Anticipating Sartre, the author of Ecclesiastes asserts life is hebel. At the end of the day, we all die: “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (3:20) And while we’re alive, one’s fate does not depend on righteous or wicked conduct but is an inscrutable mystery that remains hidden, and any attempt to penetrate this mystery is hebel.
Translating hebel as “vanity” or “meaninglessness” tends to conflate hebel itself with how we interact with hebel. To be sure, the nature of hebel tilts toward the vain and futile, but that’s not the whole story. Cloistered within Ecclesiastes is hope. And sound advice. Its author writes, since life is hebel, one “hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” (8:15)
So let us transport hebel into English as “fleeting.” Vapor, breath, and mist are fleeting. But they are not vain or meaningless. They are transitory, insubstantial and impermanent. The flowers in springtime are hebel, they are fleeting. But the flowers are not vain or meaningless. In their season flowers bring delight.
Life is fleeting. Life is hebel.
Dance is fleeting. Dance too is hebel. And it brings delight.
Jay Wegman is the Executive Director of NYU Skirball.