Sunday, October 21, 2018

Vayera: You Want It Darker

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I.”  God said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." 
                        (Genesis 21:1-2)

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Magnified, sanctified, be thy 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
                        (Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker)

At the end of this week’s portion, Vayera, we find one of the most challenging passages in the Torah: the Akedah, or binding (and near sacrifice) of Isaac.  The Rabbis consider this the tenth and last of the trials God poses to Abraham, beginning with the call to leave home that opens last week’s portion, Lech Lechah.  Indeed, the first and final trials serve as bookends, for each begins with the commandment, “Go!”—to Canaan in the former and then to the land of Moriah.

This raises a vital—and controversial—question: Does Abraham pass the test?  The strong majority of our Sages say yes, and the biblical text itself points toward this reading: in the immediate wake of Isaac’s rescue, God says to Abraham: “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”

But some of the Rabbis dissent.  In Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, Rabbi Acha points to Abraham’s startled reaction when God’s angel stops the sacrifice; accordingly he offers a radical reinterpretation of the text:

Abraham became surprised [and said]. “These words are confusing. Yesterday you said, ‘Take your son…’ And now [your angel] says to me, ‘Do not lay your hand upon the land’ – I am bewildered!” The Holy One responded: “Abraham, ‘I will not violate my covenant or change what I have uttered’ (Psalm 89:35). When I said to you ‘take your son’ I never said to slaughter him. I merely said to ‘raise him up.’”

So here we have two diametrically opposed readings of the text.  In the first, Abraham is the heroic knight of faith; in the second, he is a zealot with a tragic misunderstanding, who should have challenged God.

Leonard Cohen’s genius is that he manages, in good paradoxical fashion, to hold fast to both of these perspectives—and more—in his brilliant song, “You Want It Darker,” the title piece of his final record, released just days before he died.  The album is shot through with mortality—a perfect context for wrestling with one of Torah’s darkest episodes.

Cohen begins by confronting God, as Abraham did on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah but curiously refrained from doing when called upon to murder his own son:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
You want it darker—we kill the flame.

This language of what our Sages called chutzpah toward the heavens runs throughout the song:

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

Yet interspersed between the challenges, Cohen also offers traditional Jewish words of praise, lifted straight from the Kaddish:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

And then he delivers the ultimate expression of service—or perhaps, resignation— the one word uttered by Abraham three times in response to God’s horrific request:

I’m ready my Lord

Cohen sings over an ominous bass run, in a voice so deep and world-weary it shakes the earth—but the song ends with the plaintive repetition of the phrase by Gideon Zelermeyer, the cantor from the Montreal synagogue that Cohen’s family helped to found, backed by the congregation’s choir.  It is heavenly and hellish at the same time.

Just like the story in our parsha.
To hear Leonard Cohen’s holy and eerie, “You Want It Darker”:

1 comment:

fortboise said...

Thank you for this provocative entry, and for a reason to listen to that amazing song again.