Isaac embraces Abraham by Otto Adolph Stemler, early 20th century
Isaac embraces Abraham by Otto Adolph Stemler, early 20th century

Leonard Cohen’s take on Abraham and Isaac hits the right note


Vayera

Genesis 18:1–22:24


The door it opens slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
And you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

The incomparable Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82 on Nov. 7, 2016, and his extraordinary body of work continues to find new audiences and reveal ever-deeper layers of meaning. In the poem/song “Story of Isaac,” written in 1969, Cohen gave voice to the Biblical Isaac far more fully than in the Torah, suggesting the complete trust and sheer terror felt by (in this reading) a very young Isaac, as his God-besotted father took him to a place unknown, on a fateful pre-dawn errand that confounds us to this day.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady’s mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over,
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.”

“Story of Isaac” is one of numerous poems that receive loving treatment in “Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish and Beyond,” a 2017 book by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, formerly of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

In the book, part of a series titled “New Perspectives in Post-Rabbinic Judaism,” Glazer notes the sudden and effective change of perspective as father and son ascend up the mountain and have a bird’s-eye view of the valley now far below. They are so high up that it takes a full minute for the bottle to fall and shatter, but Abraham calms his young son with a warm touch.

The tension is heightened, however, by Isaac’s continuing confusion over whether the scene was hurtling toward life, power and triumph, symbolized by the eagle; or toward imminent death, captured by the vulture. Either way, Abraham is secure in Isaac’s compliance and certain their destiny is firmly in God’s hands.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

A stunning change of time and place juxtaposes the Biblical story with the still-unfolding tragedy between the descendants of Abraham. Cohen brings this ancient tale right up to the present, as he, through the voice of Isaac, begs us to tear down the altars upon which the children of our age are still sacrificed to settle age-old grievances.

And he crystallizes the parent’s grief and ambivalence by describing his “trembling hand,” even as Abraham, and so many in our own time, stand in perfect awe of the Divine Command he believes he is heeding.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
“Just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

Cohen, who treasured and owned his Judaism throughout his entire life, here alights on one of the most poignant messages of Vayera, and indeed of the entire history of the Abrahamic people — that this is a story of brothers.

Earlier in the parashah, Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael was banished following the enigmatic incident at Isaac’s weaning ceremony. Although they will come together to bury their father in Genesis 25, the effects of Ishmael’s exile and Isaac’s near-sacrifice reverberate through time.

Cohen deftly expresses the pain and power in this eternal family feud, and to this very day, we wonder: Which will it be? Will there be bloodshed? Or will a hand reach out across the divide to finally find a path to peace?

In the end, Cohen prays for mercy as these brothers take up arms against each other, and on which side one stands determines who is cast as the “man of peace” and who is the “man of war.”

Into this mix of paradox and co-mingled bloods comes one final magnificent image — the peacock, whose glorious plumage (in Buddhist lore, which Cohen studied seriously for years) represents the All-Seeing Eyes of the Divine Spirit. Vayera closes with Abraham giving the name “Adonai Yireh” (the Eternal will see) to the site of the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

No matter what path we travel, what choices we make, the Torah teaches us that all is revealed to the Holy One of Blessing. And this is the final lesson of Cohen’s beautiful, searing poem. May his music and poetry continue to inspire us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at rabbishanachandlerleon@gmail.com.