In the final album of the magnificent poet of the human soul, Leonard Cohen, alav ha’shalom (peace be upon him),his deep, graveled voice rolls these words alongside the eerie vocal beauty of the choir of his childhood shul:
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.
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, we kill the flame.
These are lyrics shaped by a stark, naked, and cracked peering into the darkness, at once iconoclastic and devotional, that has characterized Cohen’s poetic house of love, mortality and prayer his entire life. In these lyrics, with a distinct immediacy, I can feel Cohen’s intimacy with the angel of death. He knew where he was headed. Woven into his poetry are the words of the kaddish, a prayer that lays human frailty and finitude in the lap of the Eternal. In his precise and potent way, these words shine a light of truth and brokenness into the darkness of suffering, human impotence and unanswered hope, making the darkness visible, and making visible too, the flashes of the luminous, the numinous, that can only be seen when we kill the flame, when all other light is extinguished.
The Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) reminds us that there are seasons for everything. We are entering the season of darkness. Physically, literally, the hours of darkness are growing day by day. The existential darkness that Cohen sings about is inherent to the human condition, but we often keep it out of sight and out of mind when life is rolling along as we like it to, if we are currently spared from illness or pain, or when the weather is warm and sunny. But the outer darkness tends to amplify our ability to see, to feel, the dark chasms within. And with surprising, disturbing force, the US election has also rendered visible a darkness of bigotry and hatred that has been there all along, but is now being exposed and fomented in American society. With a spike in hate crimes, like the posters that appeared in Toronto and Edmonton inviting White people tired of political correctness to join the Alt-Right and anti-Jewish vandalism painted on the Machzikei Hadas synagogue in Ottawa, it is clear that Canada’s own versions of these ugly and dark hatreds are coming to the surface too.
This is an important time for resolute action. It is an important time to affirm and grow our commitments to diversity and equality, to be vocal, strategic and clear against organized, principled hatred, to foster the joyous and enriching sense of our human, spiritual, and socio-economic interdependence and mutual responsibility, to stand in ally-ship, activism, and friendship with targeted groups — Muslims, people of colour, women, LGBTQ folks — and as a Jewish community, to call for allies to stand with us.
At the same time, this cannot be a panicked or despairing or simplistic fight against all forms of darkness and the shadows they cast. From the poetic and personal to the political, what Cohen offers, and what the practices of Chanukah offer, is a direct relationship with various types of darkness. This is an important time to see the darkness, unblinkingly letting our eyes adjust to it so that we can discern its contours and see what is important to understand about it so that we can respond to it wisely. What is the darkness that we need to see right now? What economic anxiety and experiences of disenfranchisement and disillusionment are fueling the racism and anti-Semitism that we are witnessing? What fears and defenses are stirred when we encounter feelings of powerlessness — be they political or existential? Who do we want to blame? Where do we want to run for safety? What might help us pause in the darkness for a little while, not running away and not reactively throwing up our fists to fight, but listening to what the darkness has to teach us.
When we light Chanukah candles in the dark night of the darkest part of the year, the mitzvah is to look at the flames but not use them for any practical purpose. We place the chanukiyah in our windows so the small, flickering light is visible from the dark street as well as in our quiet homes — in public space and interior space. This is a practice in seeing both darkness and light together. When Cohen sings out “hineni, hineni — I’m ready my Lord” he reminds us that real readiness to face whatever glory and shame we encounter depends on this. This is a practice in the spiritual fire-tending that will walk us through the dark months ahead. Before we get busy with all that needs our brave and clear action, we stop and observe, making the light and the dark both visible to the eye and reflected in the soul.
Thank you, Leonard, for all your shadows and illumination. May your memory be a blessing.
And Chanukah same’ach everyone.