When Facing God – Leonard Cohen

[Originaly published on September 23rd 2016, two months before Leonard Cohen had passed away]

On his eighty-second birthday, Leonard Cohen released, “You Want It Darker”—a somber reflective song on the perception of God and the inner world of the believer. Cohen is a Canadian Jew who leads a secular lifestyle. However, his entire body of work is related closely to Judaism. He often embeds biblical motifs in his songs, and some poems reflect a deep connection with Israel. He also incorporates Christian imagery in his songs.

Now, at eighty-two, Cohen is contemplating death. After a long and successful career, he dares to look forward into the passage to “the other world.” This reflection on his mortality is really a dialogue with God. The feeling that death is close creates an affinity with the Almighty and makes Him a partner in conversation, although it is, of course, a monolog without answers.

The lyrics consist of two fundamental elements: Cohen’s open and explicit accusations of God, and then his calling to God: I am ready, my Lord, “Hineni” (biblical Hebrew for: “Here I am.” Bible for Jews, Old Testament for Christians).

In the first part, Cohen articulates a profound philosophical argument: God is the cause of endless suffering, and horrible crimes were committed in His name. However, this is not the statement of an atheist, a non-believer. He is not saying that ­­­if religion didn’t exist, the world would have been a better place. That he is having a conversation with God illustrates a belief in His existence.

He then argues that God Himself has made human existence difficult and painful. “You want it darker,” he says to God time and again, suggesting that God does not want human life to be happy and fulfilling, but rather sad and agonizing. This argument, as paradoxical and anti-religious at it may appear, was also put forward by the great Christian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky. A naïve believer may think that God is the source of all that is good, and that eventually, His power will overcome evil. But God himself is also the source of human misery. We came into this world not to rejoice, but to suffer. God made this happen; we “killed the flame.” Salvation cannot be found in this life, but only in another world. “It is written in the scripture,” he concludes; if you read the bible, you will see that God never promised worldly happiness.

From this perspective, Cohen juxtaposes man and God. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of this game/If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.” Because the omnipotent God is not the source of good, He is not an ideal one should strive to emulate. The provocative tone is clear: if You (God) are the emblem of good, I would rather be bad. If God is the source of so much evil, I would rather be on the side of the sinners and wrongdoers.

However, as harsh and daring as these words directed to God, they are put in perspective by the other element of the song: “Hineni,” “I’m ready, my Lord.” Hineni denotes a highlighted presence, used either by God before proclaiming action, or by men who are approached by God. In the binding of Isaac, Abraham says to God, “Hineni.” When God appeared in Jacob’s dream, he quickly said, “Hineni.” Moses saw God in the burning bush and cried, “Hineni.” Samuel the prophet told God, “Hineni,” and so on. Facing an omnipotent God, biblical protagonists often said “Hineni” to denote full obedience, to demonstrate the negation of their own desires and thoughts when facing the Almighty.

The magic of the song is the interweaving of two disparate states of mind: one is that of a bitter believer, asserting that the anticipation of divine help and love ended in utter disappointment: “A million candles burning for the help that never came,” or “… for the love that never came.” Another is that of a profound believer, one who lacks doubt and hostility, and anticipates his death, which he envisages in purely religious terms: to die is to be taken by God. The ambivalent state of mind is also reflected in the music: part modern and rhythmic, part Jewish cantorial singing. If we are to speculate which part is more substantial, the song ends with cantor Gideon Zelermyer and a synagogue choir singing.

Perhaps future historians will examine this song to understand our era. They may conclude that, despite the very modern and secular appearance of western civilization, the religious past was still very much alive, in particular when people were facing questions of life and death.

You Want It Darker / Leonard Cohen

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame

It thine is the glory then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be the holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the help that never came

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni,

I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story

But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures

And it’s not some idle claim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle class and tame

I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be the holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the love that never came

You want it darker

We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be shame

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

[Cantor Gideon Zelermyer]

Hineni

Hineni, hineni

Hineni

 

 

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