In an interview in the 1980s, poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen said, “I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech that I heard in the synagogue, where everything was important. The absence of the casual has always attracted me.”
When I read those words, I understood why Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry has been so important to me. I would venture to say that the “absence of the casual” is what attracted me to being a rabbi. It is a profession that lends itself to interactions that are profound and meaningful.
I was not aware of this consciously when I became a devoted fan of Leonard Cohen in my teenage years. I don’t know if I could have verbalized what drew me to him. Certainly, it was not his voice, which started out so-so and evolved into a barely musical growl. Looking back, I would say that Cohen’s Jewish soul spoke to my Jewish soul.
Leonard Cohen has been on my mind in recent weeks for several reasons. Our congregation created a Shabbat service incorporating Cohen’s music and poetry; I have been reading a new book by Marcia Pally on the theology of Leonard Cohen; and we are observing his fifth yahrzeit this month.
One thing I learned from Pally’s book, “From This Broken Hill I Sing to You,” is that Cohen took his lineage as a descendant of the ancient priesthood seriously. In 1961, he wrote: “All my family were priests, from Aaron to my father.” And in 2015 he added: “When they told me I was a Kohayn, I believed it … and I tried to become that.”
The image of a priest appears in drawings collected in his posthumous work “The Flame.” In one self-portrait, Cohen holds up his hand beside the words: “We do not bless. We convey the blessings.” Another drawing includes the Hebrew words of the priestly blessing next to the tablets with God’s commandments as well as the tablets Moses shattered when the Israelites made a golden calf. Cohen, who was descended from rabbis and scholars and raised in a family that was deeply connected to Judaism, surely was aware of the tradition that the ark of the covenant, which the Israelites carried with them in the wilderness, contained both the intact tablets and the shattered ones. The drawing graphically expresses recurring themes in Cohen’s work — that blessing is conveyed through us, despite, or perhaps because of, our human fallibility and brokenness.
Many believe that the pain and darkness in much of Cohen’s work, and his recognition of our brokenness, stood in the way of his achieving mass popularity in the United States. Israeli/American journalist Liel Liebowitz writes: “When Americans hear a reference to a ‘Broken hallelujah’ they want to fix it. When Americans see the moon, they want to go there. America is not built for a statement like ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’”
That is precisely why America needs Leonard Cohen. There is so much that is broken in our country, and in our world. We need to be reminded that our brokenness can become a source of blessing for others. In a song called “Please Don’t Pass Me By,” Cohen tells a story about brushing up against a man wearing a cardboard sign that reads “Please don’t pass me by.” He hears voices singing “Please don’t pass me by, for I am blind but you can see. Please don’t pass me by.” As the song goes on, he realizes the voices he hears are about more than this one man. He sees all the others around him who are suffering. He brings in the Holocaust when he sings: “I sing this for the Jews and Gypsies and this for the children of England, their faces so grave.” But he also understands he is singing it for himself, for his own blindness and brokenness.
Despite all of his songs and poems and success, he knows that he too is out there on the corner with the poor, with the hated, with the maimed.
I hear his Jewish soul in this. I hear the echo of ancient midrash that says the Messiah will be found among the lepers at the gate to the city, sitting with those who have been excluded. I hear the echo of Torah commanding us to care for the most vulnerable, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, because we too know the heart of the stranger.
At the end of the song, Cohen begs the audience to stop thinking this song is about someone else. “I hope to see you out there on the corner,” he says. “And please don’t pass me by.”
The words broken and brokenness appear in 10 percent of Cohen’s recorded lyrics. But there is redemption and healing in this broken state. Through his music and poetry, Cohen teaches us that in recognizing our brokenness, we become vessels for blessing and healing.
Five years after his death, we still need to hear Leonard Cohen’s voice, reminding us:
“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
There are cracks and imperfections in our country, there are cracks and imperfections in Judaism, and there are cracks and imperfections in each one of us. How beautiful and hopeful to think that it is through our cracks that light enters the world.
May Leonard Cohen’s memory continue to inspire us to convey blessing to those around us and to allow light to enter the world through our cracks and imperfections.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.