Sasso: Leonard Cohen, and standing against darkness

(Indianapolis Star, November 23, 2016)

One of the greatest poets, songwriters and singers of our generation died recently. For 50 years Leonard Cohen gave voice to the pain and hope of thousands of followers.

Weeks before his death, he released an album, “You Want It Darker.” Most interpreters of Cohen have understood the lyrics of the album’s lead song to be an acceptance of mortality. Using the Hebrew word meaning, “here I am” he sings, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my lord.”

However, I would like to suggest a different understanding, one that calls on all of Cohen’s admirers and listeners not to accept the darkness we confront in our nation.

There is a special prayer in the Jewish High Holy Day liturgy called, Hineni. It occurs at no other time of the year and it is sung by the cantor. It begins, “Here I am poor in deeds, rattled and afraid…” The cantor recognizes that he or she is not worthy of the task of pleading for compassion on behalf of the people who have come to pray. Still the cantor asks that his or her prayer for mercy on behalf of the righteous, the gracious, the innocent and the honest be accepted.

The prayer is often followed by words of the kaddish as it is in Cohen’s song. “Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy name.” When I read the traditional words, “Receive my prayer as the prayer of one who is old and whose voice is pleasant…” it does not take much to imagine that is Cohen who speaks them, pleading on behalf of the people he loves.

We can touch the darkness, of which Cohen speaks, the brokenness, the shame, the suffering. With our national election just concluded, the language of hate, the demeaning of minorities, immigrants and women is escalating.

The South Poverty Law Center reported an increase in threats and vandalism since Donald Trump’s election. In Maryland the rector of Episcopal Church found the sign advertising Spanish services ripped and overwritten with the words, “Trump Nation Whites Only.” Anti-Semitic graffiti — including a swastika and the words “Heil Trump” —appeared at a bus stop at the University of California at San Diego. Black students at the University of Pennsylvania were threatened as was a Muslim student at the University of Michigan.

In Indiana, in Bean Blossom, the walls of Saint David’s Episcopal Church were vandalized with swastikas, the words “Heil Trump,” and a homophobic slur most likely because of the church’s position on gay marriage. In Bloomington, white men in a truck yelled obscenities at a black women along with, “Trump is going to deport you back to Africa.” Recently, on “60 Minutes,” Trump said that he is going to deport 3 million people who are undocumented and criminals. “We are going to have a deportation force.”

Could Leonard Cohen’s words be true? Do we want it darker? Or are we ready to write, organize and speak out for the values of justice and loving kindness. Whatever our political affiliation, some things cannot stand. We must be the voice who says, “Here I am, rattled and afraid,” but not silent.

In the words of another great poet, Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.