Leonard Cohen

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…

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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….

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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

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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–

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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.

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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.

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*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/

 

 

 

 

Hallelujah!

This past week a YouTube video that must have gone viral through the Jewish community, arrived in my inbox from many diverse sources. It was a video of a young Israeli singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, in Hebrew*.

The first wave of emails I got with this link came with emphatic subject lines to ‘watch this!’: I didn’t really look, though, until the link came from a dear friend back home in Vancouver.

I needed both the message from my friend, and also the message from Mr. Cohen. I watched the video stream into my view in rapt attention, and the gooey trappings of the talent show faded to the background. Because it was in Hebrew, I could let go of the familiar sound and imagery of Cohen’s words, and allow just his music to sail into a novel understanding of the pathos of the song.

The youth who sang seemed too young to have lived Cohen’s poetry, although he brought a youthful fever to the song that kept me on edge, his voice always near the breaking point, but not quite. It was a cliffhanger. He filled his container to the brim, without fear of breaking or overflowing. That is what I have been seeking in my art: that is what I needed to see this week.

I replied to my friend, “Now I know what I will sing for my Cantorial Boards this Spring, thank you!”

What are Cantorial Boards? at the end of the academic year the Cantorial students at JTS present our vocal, and in my case instrumental and vocal, accomplishments to our faculty. The wonderful part is being able to choose something dear to the heart, and I have already chosen my oboe piece, a beautiful rendition of Psalm 23 by Gerald Cohen. I also know I will be presenting as a liturgical piece, a selected prayer moment from the Weekday Nusah.

We also present a secular song. My first thought was something from West Side Story, I always loved performing the score on oboe in ensembles, grabbing onto the sexy driven pace so characteristic of Leonard Bernstein. I gave myself the challenge to vocally step outside myself, and in fantasy, don a bouncy ponytail and swirl skirt and sing, ‘I’m So Pretty’. If I could pull this off, be someone I have never been, indeed, I could transform myself into any role, with practice.

As another, more academic part of developing my identity as a Cantor, I attended the Mini Semester at the Seminary this past week. I was the only student from the Cantorial School among the many Rabbinical students. The Interfaith theme for the week took us to the nearby Catholic Church, where I learned that Catholic Churches also have Cantors, and the Cantor at this Church was a woman. She shared with me that the Catholic prayers can be sung to musical modes particular to each prayer, something that I had thought was unique to Jewish prayers. This Cantor’s training came from memory, listening to recordings, and composing in those modes. I also noticed that she had a natural way of moving herself, sweeping us up with her as she swept up her arms, keeping the flow of prayer moving along by extending her presence into the sanctuary draw us in, and she avoided invasive singing ‘instructions’, those interruptions to explain how and when to join in, that can kill the kavana or prayer intent.

One of the four days of the mini Semester focused mostly on music and prayer. The first presentation was with Neshama Carlebach and members of the Green Pastures Baptist Choir. We heard the channeling of her father’s voice in the selections of his music, with the addition of the voices of her Inter-faith ensemble. The gospel spirituals styling and falsettos got us to our feet and I felt the flight of spirit as we left the structures we are so used to in our traditional Jewish prayers. The exposure to different prayer music continued after dinner, when we went to a Gospel Church in Harlem for the Wednesday night Manna Service. Here, the worship ran with escalating energy and reverb into and through the congregation. Again, many of us enthusiastically joined in, hands and body in the music, as well as voices.

And here is where I realized that I could dump the ponytail and swirl skirt, and pack my powerful body of spirit into prayer. This is where I understood how the rigorous seminary training as a Cantor would serve me. In the church, the spirit would fly from the soles of my feet and my bones, up the windpipes and out the lid: but sometimes, unlike the young polished Israeli singer, it would get away from me. I yearned to do whatever I needed to, to keep that tension of spirit and verve in check, from getting away, and to keep it suspended joyfully like a beautiful kite on the wind, not allowing it to be torn away and lost by a gale force.

At my next voice lesson, I allowed myself to open further, freer and let my teacher guide me when I got to the point where I would lose it, to keep the music in check, to tame it. The grunt work of ear training helped me stay on pitch, and now I could begin to trust my ability to feel the pleasure of the beauty of voice without the fear of losing it to the wind. The tension of holding pitch while releasing into the sounds I anticipated was a taste of liberation for me. Hallelujah!

Sometimes it is a good thing to venture past the familiar. Experiencing the joy and ecstasy in prayer with confidence came with accessing prayer differently with others. That is the value of Interfaith experienve.

In the past, singing Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ was frustrating, much like trying to catch a little fox and hold it by the tail, only to have it skitter away. The song itself is about relationship, bittersweet, somber, with moments of ecstasy and pathos ensconced in the musical moments, juxtaposition of pitches and modulations. How to, it is like the intonation of the oboe; piercing and beckoning and visceral all at the same time. How reminiscent of relationships we’ve all had. How much this music resonates with my life, and how at peace I am to know that I can learn to capture this yearning, at least for an afternoon of graduation.

*http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1RgQrw2WLc&feature=colike