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Light in the Darkness: Remembering Leonard Cohen

Manhattan Jewish Experience | Shabbat December 9, 2016

I would like to share with you a stanza from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Who By Fire’ which he recorded in 1972:

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

Who in your merry-merry month of may

Who by very slow decay

And who shall I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen passed away on Nov. 7. Leonard Cohen was a man of paradoxes. He was Zen Buddist monk who said I am first and foremost a Jew, he was a person who sang about G-d yet was constantly confronting G-d.   He was a hedonist who was deeply religious (When his biographer went up to his hotel room and Cohen opened up his suitcase a bottle of Jack Daniels and a tefilin fell out). Yet his religiosity was very complex.

What does the stanza above remind us of? The Yom Kippur prayer of Netanah Tokef.   Yet we see for Leonard Cohen this is not just about whether I will live for the coming year. What does he mean in the last line: “ Who shall I say is calling?” The way understand it, he is asking G-d, how should I identify you, how should I relate to you? As the angel of death, as the tough judge, or just as the creator of a natural world where old age and death is part of the human experience?

But the next stanza turns this question on its head –btw please bear with me, I know we are more used to sound bites or MJE classes than poetry, but as Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi, Rabbi Mordecai Finley said, he was able to say more in one line than I could in a half hour class.

And who in her lonely slip?

Who by barbiturate?

Who in these realms of love?

Who by something blunt?

Who by avalanche?

Who by powder?

Who for his greed?

Who for his hunger?

And who shall I say is calling?

All of a sudden death is not just an act of G-d, it is something that man or woman brings upon him/or herself, or upon others. In this shift he is putting G-d on the spot, but is putting man on the spot, speaking to the human responsibility for our own self-destructivity.

So why am I speaking about Leonard Cohen after his passing, beside the fact that I have been a long-time fan? I think there are two powerful messages we can take away from his life. The first is that he was a proud Jew who put himself on the line for the Jewish People and for Israel in moments when we were in danger and when under attack. The second message we can learn from Leonard Cohen is the overcoming of adversity on a personal level, the finding of light in the darkness.

In 1973 when the Yom Kippur war broke out he put his life in danger and flew from Greece where he was living at the time into the battle zone to volunteer. He was spotted by an Israel folk singer in a Tel Aviv café who asked him to join him to go to the front and play for soldiers. In a song he composed while there ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ he sings about the soldiers: “And may the spirit of this song, / may it rise up pure and free. / May it be a shield for you, / a shield against the enemy.”

A number of decades later there was another incident that showed his willingness to put himself on the line for his people. Cohen had a concert tour planned for Israel and he was targeted by anti-Israel activists insisting that boycott the Jewish state. When he refused they picketed his concerts. So he called on the demonstrators to work together for peace. He arranged a concert for the Palestinians in Ramallah and even though he was in need of funds himself, asked Amnesty International to help him donate the proceeds of his Tel Aviv concert to peace groups. Instead of welcoming these gestures, Cohen’s would-be partners rejected them outright. Amnesty International refused to work with Cohen. The Ramallah Cultural Palace, which was to host Cohen’s concert cancelled, saying that Cohen would not be welcome in Ramallah if he performed in Israel, too. In the midst of the controversy, Cohen, by then in his 70s, collapsed onstage during a performance in Valencia Spain. Undaunted, Cohen refused to give up. His September 24, 2009 concert near Tel Aviv sold out within hours and he played to a packed audience of about 55,000 Israelis. He was proud of his yichus, his lineage as a cohen and blessed the crowd: “May your life be as sweet as apples dipped in honey.”  Even though he was in desperate need of funds because his manager had co-opted most of his profits, he donated the million dollars to charity. Since Amnesty International refused to work with him, Cohen set up a fund of his own, calling it the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace. One program Cohen funded was an Israeli charity that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in terror attacks and war.

Leonard Cohen’s music has Jewish and spiritual themes woven into many of his songs, such as Who by Fire, The Story of Isaac, If It Be Your Will, The Law, Whither Thou Goest, and more where he sings about Torah, G-d’s will, the holocaust and other Jewish themes. He was brought up in an orthodox household in Montreal, and his two grandfathers were learned Rabbis. He talks about how the atmosphere of the synagogue touched him as a young boy even though as felt himself an outsider to organized religious life.   The most famous Jewish themed song is Halleluyah, which is appropriate because it talks about the poet and musician King David:   “I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ That David played, and it pleased the Lord…” Leonard Cohen used music and poetry to express religious themes, but in a very different way than King David. If Torah is the teaching and Divine service through which we strive to elevate ourselves and come close the Almighty, literature and poetry expresses the human experience, and all of its suffering and pain. It starts with the human dimension of experience, into which Leonard Cohen incorporates the struggles of his relationship with G-d. His songs express a human dimension of the complexity and stark realism about our relationship with G-d which is often not touched upon in classic religious writings. Leonard Cohen longed for light yet seemed to be stuck in a dark world. It is not surprising that he has been called the Bard of Doom and Gloom. The title to his final album, You Want It Darker, attests to this. Let’s look at the first stanza:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

How are we supposed to understand the line ‘you want it darker’? Is he condemning G-d, you want it darker? Or is it a reflection of man’s demons? At first glance it seems to be a rejection of the world that G-d has dealt him. But once again he turns the onus on man as well by saying ‘We kill the flame.’

Back to the song:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the help that never came

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

You Want it Darker came out just weeks before his death, and it appears LC was preparing for this final journey. In the line ‘magnified and sanctified is the Holy name’, which comes from the kaddish, is he reciting the mourner’s kaddish for himself. There is even a background hymn at the beginning of the song which sound like synagogue prayer, and it is. It was recorded in his synagogue in Montreal with the cantor and the choir. The last two lines ‘hineni, hineni, I am ready my Lord’ is a quote lifted from the story of the binding of Isaac, where G-d calls out to Abraham to ask him to offer his son. Abraham answers Hineni, which means I am here ready to do for you whatever you ask of me. It seems that Leonard Cohen is finally making peace with G-d, and with his own death.

Leonard Cohan did not have an easy life, his manager appropriated much of his money in the late ‘90’s when he was in his middle age, he struggled with depression apparently his whole life, and in the last years his bones were brittle and his vertebras cracked. He made much of the album in bed, and had the other artists record the parallel tracks.

We see how this creative genius struggled with suffering and with life’s struggles, by expressing the pain, by confronting G-d. How does the Torah address it our response to suffering? There is much to say of this topic, from the Book of Job and the Book of Lamentations to Rabbi Nahman of Breslav, however I would like to share with you a debate found in the Talmud which is not so far off from Leonard Cohen’s dirges on life. In the Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13a it says


For two-and-a-half years the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel argued. These said: Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. And these said: Better for man to have been created that not to have been created. They counted and decided: Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. Now that he has been created, he should strive through his actions.

ת”ר שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה הללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא והללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו מתני׳

The Talmud seems to conclude that now that we are here, make the best of it. This is how I see Leonard Cohen’s outlook, he struggled with and expressed the darker side of life, all the while fighting for something good and struggling to keep his connection to G-d. This is from Halleluyah:

There’s a blaze of light in every word

It doesn’t matter which are heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

For Leonard Cohen the light can still blaze, and the broken and the holy are not opposites, but are both part of the human experience. As we approach Chanukah, Leonard Cohen’s message is all the more relevant. It is in the darkest times that the light can come in and bring us strength. It was in the lowest moments of assimilation and religious oppression that the strength of the Jewish people and of the Maccabees was awoken. It was during the Yom Kippur war that Leonard Cohen demonstrated his dedication to his people. I leave you with a final quote from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

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