Parashat Ha’azinu: Leonard Cohen, Moses, and the End of it All

I’m the little Jew

Who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

But love’s the only engine

Of survival [1]

 

Why do human beings write and read poetry?

Why does poetry work?

Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Simmons argues that poetry has a particularly important role today: it teaches us how to write, how to read, and how to understand any text. It gives us a healthy outlet for surging emotions. It can foster trust and empathy, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in reading other forms of literature. [2]

My teacher, Rabbi David Kasher, says: “It’s true, we don’t ‘need’ poetry. We can get by communicating in prose, and take care of the basic functions of human life.” [3] We could just say what we mean, couldn’t we? Save paper. Save time. Just get to the point.

But that would be missing the point of being able to speak and read, wouldn’t it?

Rabbi Kasher goes on: “The fact that we write poetry is a testament to our search for something more. Some kind of hidden beauty, some kind of deeper meaning.”

What is the hidden beauty, the deep meaning in these words:

I’m the little Jew

Who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

But love’s the only engine

Of survival

Your servant here, he has been told

To say it clear, to say it cold

It’s over, it ain’t going any further

And now the wheels of heaven stop

You feel the devil’s riding crop

Get ready for the future: It is murder

These words, penned by one of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, are the lyrics to his song, The Future. Cohen is something of a modern-day prophet. It’s not just the heavenly wisdom which pours forth from his poetry and music; wisdom which simultaneously is inspired by our rich textual tradition, and itself inspires others with its ability to peer into the depths of the human soul.

Were it only that, he would still be counted among the greats of music and literature. But more so, it is that he lives his life so remarkably in tune with our spiritual calendar. “I am ready to die,” Cohen confessed this week in a revealing interview where he candidly shared what it means to be approaching the end of his life. It is serendipitous that he shares this the very week when we read of Moses preparing for his own death.

Update: Cohen thankfully now says: “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”

“For some odd reason… I have all my marbles, so far… So I am extremely blessed… At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable… The big change is the proximity to death… I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, also, that’s O.K. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun.” [4]

In his song, The Future, Cohen ponders some anxious questions that I think must have been going through Moses’ mind, as he readied himself to abdicate his role as leader; as he prepared himself to die. Uncertain about what is to come for his people; apprehensive of how stable things will be.

Our own poet-prophet, Moses, is putting his house in order, this week in parashat Ha’azinu. In his last message to the Israelite, perched on the edges of their Promised Land, Moses crafts a poetic farewell, trying to tie up the strings before ascending to the top of Mount Nebo to die. In fact, his message is also referred to as Shirat Moshe – the song, or poem, of Moses. When you look at the text in a sefer torah, you can see how it is formatted differently, in poetic stanzas.

Moses is told by God to write down this shir – this poem – and to recite it to the Israelites. In it, he recounts the toilsome journey through the desert, and warns Israel not to reject God in the future:

God found Jacob in the land of the wilderness, in an empty howling chaos /

He circled him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.

Like an eagle who awakens his nestlings, gliding down to his young /

So did He spread His wings and take him, carrying him along on His wings.

(Deut. 32:10-11)

Moses could have communicated these ideas in prose – simply saying that God protected Jacob in the desert when times were hard. But then we would miss the fact that Jacob, whose other name is Israel is a metaphor for the Jewish people as a whole. All of us are seen as having a deeply personal relationship with God. We would miss the penetrating imagery of God seeing us as “the pupil of His eye” – always in focus, entering with the light of the universe. We would miss that God is portrayed as a protective eagle, caring for us as the majestic bird cares for its young.

When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure (Deut. 30:45-16)

This is surely an emotional time in Moses’ life, filled with uncertainty. Told by God that he is about to die without entering the land of Israel, his personal mission will remain incomplete. Strings untied; house not fully in order. He must be searching for some of what Andrew Simmons was writing about in The Atlantic: trust, empathy, and certainty that the Israelites have heard all that he has said. This is why our parasha begins with the word Ha’azinu – give ear! Literally, make sure what I am saying is resonating in your ears, because I’m not going to be around much longer; you won’t be hearing my voice anymore.

When Moses is instructed to record and share this poem, The Talmud interprets it to be not simply the words of our parashah this week, but those of the entire Torah[5] The whole Torah itself is a poem! The 19th Century commentator, the Netziv, unpacks what it means to call the entire Torah a poem:

Surely the entire Torah is not written in the language of poetry, he says. Rather, it is that Torah shares two features with poetry: its nature and its richness.

First, Torah has the nature of poetry: it speaks in a fragmented language that demands our active engagement. In a poem, ideas are not fully explained the way they are in prose. Poetry is not literal. We need to discover why one rhyme means this, while another rhyme means that. We have to make notes in the margins. We read Torah the same way: this is the foundation of the millennia-old enterprise of Torah commentary. We turn it over and over again, to piece together the fragments of meaning.

Second, Torah has the richness of poetry, as it is adorned with all kinds of literary artistry, in a way that isn’t done with prose. One who studies an idea expressed in poetic form becomes connected to it on a deeper level than to an idea expressed in prose. The Netziv writes that the illuminating language of the poem and its unique grammar is far sweeter than to one who simply comes to read it quickly and extract the main idea.

This is the way of the whole of the Torah: we go deeper than a surface-level reading, to discover that every word may contain secrets, mysteries, and hidden delights.

When Leonard Cohen writes that he is “the little Jew that wrote the Bible,” of course we are not meant to understand this literally. The delight in hearing him croon these words is in our ability to unpack the mystery behind them – what does he want us to know about his life and his view of the world? How does he understand what it means to be a Jew? How does he see the future? We are given license to share these words – they belong to him, but he has gifted them to us, as so they, too, are our portion.

We sense the secrets hidden inside; ideas that cannot be expressed in everyday language. With each read, with each listen, we uncover more delights.

The same is true for Torah. What does it mean to refer to God as a protective Eagle? Or as a treasure vault? To refer to the Torah as drops of nourishing dew?

This is why the Torah ends poetically; a reminder that all of the Torah should be read and reread, approached with a desire to uncover the layers and discover new unseen delights each time. We can resist the urge to read every word literally, instead bringing a passion to get closer to it, to unpack its mysteries, and to discover its meaning for our lives.

Poetry allows a message to resonate long after the mouth which gave voice to it is no longer with us.

Leonard Cohen shared a snippet of a “sweet little song” that he has been working on, one that he wasn’t sure he would be able to finish before he dies. As he approaches the end of his life’s journey, it seems Cohen is less apprehensive than Moses; his writing less anxious than his previous vision of the future. Like Moses’ journey, and like our own lives, not every loose end might be tied up… but that doesn’t mean we abandon the quest for meaning. The poetry is still there, if we would but listen to it:

Listen to the hummingbird

Whose wings you cannot see

Listen to the hummingbird

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the butterfly

Whose days but number three

Listen to the butterfly

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the mind of God

Which doesn’t need to be

Listen to the mind of God

Don’t listen to me.

 


[1] Leonard Cohen, The Future

[2] www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/why-teaching-poetry-is-so-important/360346/

[3] www.parshanut.com/post/98312914296/the-poetry-of-torah-parshat-haazinu

[4] www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker

[5] Babylonian Talmud: Nedarim 38

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