“Since we grow up, we fall, or, more simply, are fallen.” To be human is to see how we are fallen, as Harold Bloom suggests in his wonderful little book “Fallen Angels.”
Song is an elixir for the human condition where everyone is a fallen angel. Song is a bridge back to the celestial spheres from the infernal present moment. Song is the stairway to heaven that lines its towers. Song is the means of rising up.
This is what I always feel is going behind the scenes of Shabbat Shira as we read of the liberation song at the Reed Sea as sung in Beshalach. For the song to be sung, the angels must keep vigil to their divine source by continuously singing from what the mystics in the Zohar called the “Tower of Song.”
And yet I could not truly see or feel the power of this image of the “Tower of Song” until I heard it in the songbook of Leonard Cohen. It’s an ancient image aptly re-imagined anew in Cohen’s 1988 rendering.
I was born like this, I had no choice; I was born with the gift of a golden voice; And 27 angels from the Great Beyond; They tied me to this table right here; In the Tower of Song.
The palette from which Cohen draws his inspiration echoes the imagery in Zohar:
“There is a tower which is forbidden to enter unless by way of tears, and there is a Tower of Song [Heihkal d’Niggunah] which is forbidden to enter unless by way of song. And so David encroached this tower through song …”
We need to listen to Cohen’s songbook in light of the royal singer archetype, at once fallen and inspired, not only as author of the broken-hearted 150 psalms, but also the one who shall bring on redemption through song. Cohen is an exemplar of how music and creativity transform brokenness to greater wholeness.
Witnessing this willingness to accept brokenness as a spark of creativity was important to me along my own journey. It has inspired my forthcoming book — “Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond” — which analyzes the lyrical poetry of Leonard Cohen.
Cohen’s musical mysticism is second to none, and his lyricism needs to be read seriously and analyzed in relationship to Kabbalah, Hasidism and Rinzai Buddhism.
When we dwell deep in the words of song, then the bridge between Torah and Tefillah is visible. How fitting that Hasidic masters like Reb Nachman of Breslov instructed his editor-disciple, Reb Natan of Nemirov, to translate all his Torah back into Tefillah.
In “Tangle of Matter & Ghost,” I come to terms with how and why Cohen’s songbook is so powerful. Not only does it illuminate our own emptiness, but it points out the need to willingly devote ourselves to some activity or practice to achieve spiritual liberation.
From this awareness and acknowledgement, it is possible for true heartfelt prayer (whether formal, personal or alternative) to emerge and transform the aspirant from a state of spiritual downtroddenness to make space for the re-emergence of joy and jubilation.
Echoing the earlier dictum of the Kotzker Rebbe, that there is indeed “nothing as whole as a broken heart”, I have long felt that Cohen effectively extends the spiritual probing further.
Cohen’s post-secular songbook would have us focus on just how much the wholeness of our yearning for some kind of devotional life — as he once quipped, “for those of us who have an appetite for something like religion” — depends on the willingness to begin each step by confronting such spiritual downtroddenness.
In doing so, a deeper joy and jubilation within that brokenness is revealed. From that same “Tower of Song,” we continue to hear the echoes of the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, whose last words were penned as the ghetto was being swallowed by the Nazi Storm cloud.
He preached on Shabbat Shirah, Jan. 31, 1942: “Es zol sich zugen shirah” which means “the song should sing itself.”
So“along with 27 angels from the Great Beyond,” may the memory of Leonard Cohen continue to be a blessing, transforming our yearning into practice so that the song will sing itself.