Leonard Cohen Says “Here I Am”

Oct. 6, 1973. It’s Yom Kippur. Even non-religious Israelis are in shul. After the Six-Day War in 1967, six years earlier, a fantastic and one-sided victory against its enemies, Israel has become complacent.
And all of a sudden, on this holiest of days, Israelis start to hear that the Syrian army is attacking on the Golan Heights where there are very few Israeli troops and it looks like they can charge through right to Tel Aviv. Egypt is crossing the Suez Channel. Israel is being overrun. Its very existence hangs in the balance.
On that day, Jewish people in Israel and around the world were chanting the prayer Unetana Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Who will reach the end of their days and who will not?” This prayer is supposed to be a wake-up call to think about life itself. This prayer is meant to call us to reflection.

But on Yom Kippur 1973, the questions were not merely metaphorical; they were real and terrifying. The Yom Kippur War had begun. How would it unfold?
When you go to Israel, as my family and I did this summer, you think about that moment. I stood on the Golan Heights with my grandchildren, and we looked at the route that the Syrians could have taken to overrun the whole country. We talked to Israelis who to this day, never forget how unprepared their country was because they thought they were safe.
These thoughts were on my mind when my very dear friend, Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, told me about a new book called Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, by Matti Friedman. I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen, who passed away in 2016, since I was a teenager. I’ve read his poems and an early novel. I’ve seen documentary films about him. But still, there were things that jumped out at me from this new book, things I learned from Leonard Cohen and his responses to the Yom Kippur War.
In case you don’t know, Leonard Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter. In 1973, he already was world-famous and known for songs like “Suzanne” and an anti-war song called “The Story of Isaac,” based on the Torah reading for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. In October 1973, he was isolating himself on a Greek island. Always very hard on himself, he felt tired, depleted, and burned-out. He thought about giving up his songwriting career at the age of 39.
But then he heard about the war threatening the existence of Israel. So he flew to Israel. He just showed up. He didn’t come to write music; he didn’t come to give concerts before thousands of fans. He didn’t even bring his guitar. He didn’t know about the tradition of Israeli musicians following the troops. At the moment of the greatest crisis that Israel ever experienced, when no one knew what to do, he just got on a plane and showed up. In an interview, a reporter asked Cohen if his experience would be expressed in his art. Cohen answered, “I didn’t come here to collect material. I don’t have any thoughts about it. I just came as soon as I could.”

This action, and this statement, jumped out at me. How do we respond to a crisis? We just show up. I will always remember this. There are a lot of times when we don’t know what to say or what to do. I will tell you that I have made this mistake as a rabbi: There are times that I want to help and I’m frozen because I don’t know what to say or do. I am reminded by this story about Leonard Cohen that when a crisis hits and there are no words: JUST SHOW UP, just reach out, just call. At this time when we’ve just emerged from Covid and isolation, I want to stress that we all need to show up, that we need it and our community needs it.

Here is a second important message from the book about Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s religious path took zigs and zags; it was not a straight line. In that famous song “Suzanne,” there is a stanza about Jesus that may be the most beautiful thing I ever heard about him by anyone. In a film I saw about Cohen, there was a lot about his involvement with Buddhism. He was even ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996.
Even through all that, he continued to consider himself Jewish. He said: “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”
Cohen said: “I’ve tried to correct that impression [that I was looking for another religion besides Judaism] because I very much feel part of that tradition and I practice that and my children practice it, so that was never in question. The investigations that I’ve done into other spiritual systems have illuminated and enriched my understanding of my own tradition.” Cohen reminds us, it is OK to be on a journey, to explore our religious identity, to struggle with and work towards making Judaism personally meaningful. The journey to be Jewish does not have to be a straight line.  Ask questions.  Allow all the moments of doubt.  The path to G-d is not a straight line; there are zigs and zags. And that’s very Jewish.

And here is one more lesson from the book about Leonard Cohen during the Yom Kippur War. Remember that until the Yom Kippur War, Cohen was on the verge of retirement. He felt he had no more to say. In his diary, he wrote that perhaps it is “time to shut up”.  And then he found himself in Israel. Without a lot of fanfare, he went to the platoons fighting at the front, and gave impromptu song-sessions from the hood of an army jeep. After meeting the troops, after singing from his heart, Cohen felt revived and energized. He went on to write some of his most beloved songs: including the very Biblical “Halleluyah,” and published many more song albums and poetry collections. He went on to create his most mature and developed works. Towards the end of his life, his Jewishness seemed to deepen and emerge with urgency.

Our Jewishness takes many forms and each of us has his or her own Jewish biography. What I am saying about us as Jewish individuals also is true for Judaism itself. The pandemic has raised new questions about the way to we practice Judaism. It’s been hard. A member of the congregation recently asked me, “What was your thought process about allowing people to Zoom in?” The answer is that I asked myself, “How can we continue to pray together when we can’t be physically together?” And now, while I do encourage everyone to come in person, and I do think this is better in every way, I am sensitive to people’s needs and know that this may not work for everyone.

Like Leonard Cohen’s trip to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, this time can lead to spiritual rebirth. We don’t know what the Judaism of the future will look like, but we can trust in the process.  We already see changes in adult Jewish learning.  You can learn in your den over zoom. Now some family members around the globe can be at your Seder table. I am so gratified on a daily and weekly basis when members of our shul and friends and relatives from Florida and California and other places zoom into services and classes.
So what are the lessons I learned from the book about Leonard Cohen during the Yom Kippur War?
During a crisis, show up. Be there for others, even if you don’t know what to do. Don’t be afraid to question, to change, to doubt, to search.
Don’t give up on what you can offer others. And don’t give up on what Judaism has to offer you. Know that whatever you do, you are Jewish, and you can always come home.