• Presentations

    Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You*

    **Just added to my Event Calendar: “There is a Crack in Everything: Leonard Cohen’s Poetry of the Soul”

    Welcome! You may be thinking that this will be a discourse or d’rasha, about Jews and Music…


    Or, This post is going to be about the musical, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat;

    or that it’s about Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry;


    it kinda makes sense, too, that this little d’rasha might be about Jews and Music because I’m Jewish and a musician.

    But, as always, we’ll go a bit deeper…

    In the last several weeks’ Torah readings we read about Joseph’s long saga, from being sold into slavery as a visionary youth, to being reunited with his father, Jacob. Jacob, long ago, had been told by his other sons, that Joseph was dead, torn apart by beasts. In Truth, though, we know that Joseph had been thrown into a pit by his brothers to die, and then they spared his life and sold him as a slave to a passing caravan.

    And, we know from the Torah readings of the past few weeks, that despite enduring one of the worst sorts of familial deception, which leads to a life filled with other treacheries and deprivations; in the end, it all comes out okay for Joseph and his family.

    • Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh;
    • Joseph, the beloved son, is reunited with his father and embraces his brothers
    • There is prosperity and expansion for the Hebrews of Goshen

    So, It’s all good, and that could be the end of this presentation: right??

    Well, No…

    That is because the Big Thing that I have learned over the years, the Big Thing to love about studying Torah, is how the stories in it are your stories and mine, too.

    So, How is that? How could I, a Modern Day, Single, Jewish, Female, Senior Citizen, ever relate to the story of a Young, Impetuous, Man, from the days of Ancient Patriarchy, named Joseph? or to his brothers’ stories, or his father’s? After all, there are a few seemingly irreconcilable differences between myself and these characters in this story. So, here’s how:

    ~~Here is a way of finding personal lessons and wisdom from the Torah; it works, for me, and maybe for you, too~~

    First, let’s think about so-called ‘Wisdom’ stories or texts, from any culture, and think about how far back they originated. Here are a few examples to get you started: the I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Koran, Australian Aboriginal Creation/Dreaming Stories, Native American traditional knowledge, Egyptian Book of the Dead….


    Why do humans make these sort of stories, ones that are passed down for generations, from times well before writing began that have lasted for long afterwards? Because Sages, those people of great insight who have the gifts of being able to integrate what they


    personally experience and observe with what they know and have been taught, and who have a deeply ingrained commitment or sense of purpose to preserve these lessons learned from the triumphs and follies of human experience so they will be available for future generations to learn from. By creating guidebooks, including the Torah, these wise people gave their generous gifts of love, compassion, and caring to us, their offspring, so that we could have them to guide us on our journeys, too.

    Sometimes these books of wisdom, including Torah, can be hard to learn from. They are generally written in a poetic or mythological voice, often as metaphor and not as exact stories with exact lessons about exact people. This imprecision thus makes it possible for a Single, Female, Senior Citizen of modern day Toronto to see herself as Joseph in the Torah stories as much as a Young Adult Man could. In fact, being lost in the exactness of the characters–such as their gender, age, or ethnicity–removes the universal lessons that our elder sages so carefully prepared for us.

    So, with that in mind, with the invitation to put yourself into the heart and mind of each of the characters of the Joseph story, let us continue!

    We are introduced to a person named Joseph, who from the start of his life is different from everyone else. He has visions and presence that are real to him and his father, Jacob; but only pose a grave threat and create fear in his brothers. Jacob also nurtures Joseph differently from his brothers, and in a way that is appropriate to Joseph’s outstanding gifts of foresight and intelligence. However, his siblings only see a pompous brother who receives favouring. Their fear of Joseph fuels a cruelty beyond mere sibling rivalry and competition for parental attention: Joseph is disposed of, abandoned, but not killed outright.

    For the next several decades of his life, Joseph will learn use his abilities and gifts over and over again, as we all try to do with ours, in order to survive. And, in addition, Joseph must also must learn how to use his great gifts in ways so they are no longer harmful to himself. His work is to learn how to let his visionary Truths shine, so that  he can lead his siblings and family through famines to prosperity and become reunited as a stronger and more concordant family clan.

    And living fully in your story or Truth is your work, and my work, too. This is the story of our lives.

    I mentioned universal cultural stories. Here are a few that are parallel sagas to our Joseph story:

    • Gilgamesh, the very earliest found full saga. About a youth who goes out into the world, meets life-threatening challenges, sorrowfully kills the thing he loves most, and returns home. Home is the same: it is Gilgamesh who is now changed.
    • The South American book of shamanic wisdom, The Four Agreements, teaches us how we are born with our Truth intact, and that we are pressured to lose our natural self and become like everyone else through cultural ‘domestication’.
    • Fred (Mr.) Rogers, who told children and parents for years, “I like you just the way you are”.
    • The Native American cautionary tale of the Stick, Corn, and Mud people. The Stick people support the Corn people as they grow; but, if the Corn person grows too much toward the sky (think of the young Joseph’s dreams), the Stick people who supported them will pull away, and the spindly Corn person will fall and become mired down in the Mud.
    • Then there is the story of the young Chinese Kung-Fu student who keeps asking his Master when he will be granted the honour of becoming a Master—and the Master answers by handing the student yet more stones to haul.
    • And, as promised, here is Leonard Cohen:

    In so many varieties of ways, Leonard Cohen tells us that our purpose is to keep peeling away the veils and layers that hide our personal Truth. That our mission is always visible, yet we find ways to evade it. In his Poem/Song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (listen here: https://youtu.be/netfyjdNBrU) he tells us:

    The ponies run, the girls are young
    The odds are there to beat
    You win a while and then it’s done
    Your little winning streak
    And summoned now to deal
    With your invincible defeat
    You live your life as if it’s real
    A thousand kisses deep

    I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed
    I’m back on boogie street
    You lose your grip and then you slip
    Into the masterpiece
    And maybe I had miles to drive
    And promises to keep
    You ditch it all to stay alive
    A thousand kisses deep

    And sometimes when the night is slow
    The wretched and the meek
    We gather up our hearts and go
    A thousand kisses deep…**

    We have indeed, just so much time apportioned to us. Those things which are most deeply entrenched and always with us, are our enduring personal, real, Truth. Cohen explains how things go our way for a while, “the ponies run, the girls are young…You win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak”. But our mission, however clumsy or challenging, is enduring–


    is always there for us to master. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live your life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Does Joseph live his life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Let’s find out.

    At so many turns, Joseph could have made the expected decisions of one who has become ‘domesticated’ or succumbed to societal expectations, such as: avoiding harm from his brothers by keeping his dreams and special multicoloured coat hidden; or partnering with Potiphor’s seductive wife, making them the ultimate ancient Egyptian ‘power-couple’; he could have not revealed who he was when his brothers came to Egypt during the famine; he could also have wrought revenge and had them all executed.

    But, he did not. He was a visionary and knew that there was a further destiny he had to strive towards, ‘the summon’ as Leonard Cohen would say, to deal with the ‘invincible defeat’ of who he really was and what he needed to do. Choosing to be this way, overcoming defeat by choosing his invincible nature, brought him to a new relationship with his family, one that was as correct and fulfilling as ‘a thousand kisses deep’. Our duty, according to this Joseph story, is to know that immediate victories are temporary, and those tough things about ourselves that we are willing to embrace and struggle with, engage us as deeply as the most real and passionate experience of being.

    Life is full of distractions, and like everyone else, I have many! if I allowed them, distractions could take over and control all the hours and days of my life: all the many online sales with demands to buy now!; staying on top of financial and home upkeep while the pandemic weaves uncertainty into everything; navigating family and friendships; maintaining the health and wellbeing of myself and my two rescue cats; navigating the complexity of my urban environs. The list of daily tasks seems to goes on and on. And each time, before embarking on any of these items, I pause and think of the Joseph story.

    Like Joseph, I have been living out a long saga that has taken me to far off places and yet still know what drives me forward; it is not the daily temptations and distractions. I have other plans: to produce writing and music. One of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who, in addition to his work at JTS, was a congregational Cantor and music composer. He told me, “If I have to stay up until 2am to get my piece written, I will. It is my responsibility and no one else’s; otherwise, it won’t get done”. I hear in his words a Joseph, doing whatever it takes to not lose the most important part of his life’s work, while living his life.

    The more important work for each of us is not laid out neatly elsewhere. And the life lessons of the Joseph saga are not limited to those who are chosen for world changing missions, or are visionary, or brilliant, or male. I see the life lessons of the Joseph saga as a template for each and every one of us: how we navigate the times when we come home to ourselves: giving birth, saying goodbye to loved ones, discovering our own mortality, times of questioning and hesitation.


    Go home or to your study today, and understanding this, re-read the Joseph story. Think of steps taken in your past, present or future as a parallel to how Joseph moves through his. What distractions have popped up that throw you into a pit, what job or title or too-good-to-be-true bargains have seduced you. Which of these put you into a prison, put you up on a pedestal, or allowed you to be you? And, most important, take time to remember and draw closer and more intimate with your more enduring self, the one who you knew you were, right from your earliest recollections.

    If you don’t have a strong recall or sense yet, be patient. Make room for your stories by going for a walk, window shopping, a long drive in the countryside, meditating, writing a poem or prayer.

    For us, the lesson is about staying the course when disruptions arise, whatever form they take. This is the lesson of Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You.



    *Full text of my D’var Torah, presented to Temple Emanu-El on Shabbat 11 December 2021, Toronto, Canada

    **source: https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/42870/