Our discussion on the blog this week was inspired by the question, “What song or piece of music makes you think differently or think deeply?” Some individuals mentioned a particular song and some mentioned a particular text. All talked about how the music makes them think. Two ideas emerged over again.
One is that music is able to express what feels inexpressible, whether it’s, as one of you mentioned, the miracle that we’re here at all, or the universality of the human experience. Music can access our complicated emotional lives and make us stop, think, and recalibrate, as another of you said, to remember to appreciate each special moment.
The other idea that emerged is that music, a particular song, can transport you in time right back to a place in your memory, like, as some of you mentioned, a life-cycle event or cherished time with loved ones. We each form a personal soundtrack through our lives that reminds us of those important moments. The music triggers the memory.
Many of you know I returned last week from almost 2 weeks in Israel. There is so much I want to share with you, so many experiences to reflect upon. Tonight I will begin, and there will be more to come in coming weeks and months.
And I’ll begin with a song that has made me think differently and think deeply and which became the running soundtrack to my visit. The song is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and I heard this song three times during my trip. Now whenever I hear it in the future I will be transported back to this window of time in my relationship to Israel.
Some of you have heard me sing this song before and I have always prefaced a performance of this song with “I have no idea what this is about.” I know it’s about love, pain, and loss, but it’s also about hope, acceptance, and awe. It juxtaposes a deeply moving but melancholy melody with the most upbeat celebratory word known in any language, Hallelujah. It is a song of contradictions. It confuses before it makes clear. It embraces the mess of life, and finds the light.
I first heard this song in Tel Aviv during a Shacharit, a morning service, workshop with Beit T’filah Yisraeli, a worship community that gathers at the port in Tel Aviv, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They incorporate modern poetry and song into their Kabbalat Shabbat service and the leaders of the community have also composed new melodies for the traditional liturgy. In cosmopolitan Tel Aviv it’s catching on, and they get upwards of 1000 people to participate. In our Shacharit workshop, they used the melody from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to sing Psalm 150, which is a traditional liturgical choice for a morning service. This is the psalm that recounts every instrument used in the ancient temple to accompany joyful singing, the psalm that exhorts every soul to praise God, Kol Han’shama T’haleil Yah, Hallelujah. They used this beautiful melody and stripped it of its confusing, dark, but hopeful lyrics. And I thought…Can a melody be stripped of its original context and used to express something different? Although I’ve heard this done before and done it myself, with this particular song I wondered, can you let go of the associations of the original lyrics? It worked. It was a different Psalm 150, a full-throated and pleading expression of praise.
The second time I heard this song was after a trip to the Kotel, the Western Wall, as our family ascended the steps leading from the Wall back up to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. There alongside the steps was an observant Jewish man busking—singing with a guitar, and singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. And I thought…what does this man think of Leonard Cohen? What would this man think of me singing this song? Has he ever listened to the lyrics and their complicated representation of religion and our sacred texts? I found myself starting to sing with him as I continued to climb up the steps, glowing in the Hallelujah of being in Jerusalem with my family. And I realized that it made no sense to me that he was singing this song, but I really don’t know anything about him, and he knew nothing about me. But the refrain of Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, spoke to us both.
The third time I heard this song I was at Jerusalem’s Tachana Rishona, 1st train station, which the municipal government refurbished and transformed into a meeting, eating, hanging out place. I was walking across the central plaza where there was some sort of singing contest or showcase going on, emceed in English. There was a singing group of all women performing an a capella version of this song. And I thought…what is it with this song?
An hour later, as we continued to hang out in this public space, the first siren to sound in Jerusalem signaling a rocket headed our way began to wail. This song will now forever take me back to that night. And it will also remind me of the wonder of life, how messy and heartbreaking and troubled it can be, and how we must hang on to the wonder, to the ability to say Hallelujah from the middle of all of that confusion.
Israel is in pain. The despair did not start with the rockets. The mood I sensed and heard described is one of acquiescence to a difficult and tense situation. And it is a mess. Greater, more strategic minds than ours have wrestled with how to create peace and have come up short. We all want multiple things from Israel and for Israel and the contradictions and complications are painful. So what can we say from deep within the confusion? Maybe Hallelujah, maybe nothing on our tongues, as the lyrics say, but Hallelujah.
What is this song about? In Leonard Cohen’s own words, “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a thing at all—Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”
He talks of the holy and the broken Hallelujah. That was Israel to me on my trip. But he also talks of the blaze of light in every word. May the light of Hallelujah break free and break forth and be the hope. Holy, broken, at this point nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.