Leonard Cohen has been on my mind a lot lately, as we approach the darkest time of year. Maybe it’s because Cohen was a man who seemed most at home in the dark and brokenness of this world. I first encountered him as a young girl in the back seat of a blue Volvo station wagon, on our annual family pilgrimage down to visit my Bubbie and Zaidie in Miami. In those pre-iPad and earbud days, whatever we did on that drive down, we did together: counting license plates, listening to stories and yes, singing together. And then, there was always a point in the late night drive when my father would sing to us. A Leonard Cohen fan, he would sing of Suzanne, and how “she takes you down to her place by the river”. As he went on to describe “she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China,” I had an image in my young mind of a canoe filled with clementines.

The world might be deeply imperfect, but that didn’t mean it was bad.

I next met Cohen as an angsty adolescent reading his poetry. I discovered a poet who reminded us that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. The world might be deeply imperfect, but that didn’t mean it was bad. It’s this clarity that has me thinking about a man, whose grave is marked Eliezer HaCohen, and how he might help us to encounter the dark that meets us now – in the world, our lives and as we draw towards Hanukkah.

Showing Up to the Darkness

As Jews, we don’t run away from the struggle; we face it head on. Every morning we bless God who “forms light and creates darkness,” affirming the singular source of both light and joy as well as darkness and difficulty. We know that the human experience will inevitably contain moments of darkness. The very first Jew, Abraham, implanted this in our spiritual DNA. When he is called upon by God to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, he responds “hineni – here I am.” It is not the answer of a man who understands or necessarily agrees with what lies ahead – it is a simple statement of willingness. The call is urgent, the prospective pain unfathomable – and yet, Abraham shows up.

Cohen demonstrated that same Jewish ability to simply show up to the darkness in his last album. “Hineni, Hineni” he sang with the cantor and choir of his childhood synagogue in Montreal. It is not a statement of comprehension or delight. It is an openness to be with things as they are. And that is the Jewish soul – to find ourselves in a world steeped in darkness and stay awake to our reality. To read of unthinkable destruction and experience our own “I can’t go on” moments and continue to say “here I am.” When the world is busy numbing out, trying to forget or at least take the edge off, we can choose to stay awake; even if, and especially when, reality is painful.

Finding the Light

But it is not enough to encounter the darkness. Our mission is to find the light. I am always struck by the story of the Maccabee’s discovery of a singular jug of pure olive oil suitable to light the Temple’s Menorah. There they were amidst a completely ransacked Temple. The place of greatest holiness and connection made a shambles. I imagine the scenes of Kristallnacht. And what did they do? They lit the Menorah. There was no knowing what tomorrow would bring. But in that moment they found the hope and determination to continue on – to affirm light and life. That is miraculous.

“I wanted to stand with those who clearly see God’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it.”

We don’t just show up to the darkness, we find reason for hope and praise. In describing the inspiration for creating “Hallelujah,” Cohen said, “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see God’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it.”

In a time of deep darkness and confusion, it is easy to run away. But there is a light that is calling to us. It starts with saying, “Hineni, here I am.” But that is only the beginning. We all have our own “single jug of pure olive oil.” The place in ourselves where we don’t have enough - money, love, energy or hope – and that’s when we need to find the courage to keep on going, to find a cause to praise. It’s not about denying the difficulties; it’s about discovering goodness hiding in their wake.

Leonard Cohen has finished singing. But we can still keep finding all the light and discover our “hallelujah.”

L'ilui nishmas Eliezer ben Nisan HaCohen