Friday Jukebox: Leonard Cohen’s Anthem
(The video below was recorded at some point during Cohen’s 2008-2010 concert tour.)
I first encountered Leonard Cohen in college, some three-plus decades ago. My goyishe then boyfriend, as blond and blue-eyed as they come, introduced me not only to him, but also to many of the recording artists who still provide much of my life’s soundtrack: Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, and Graham Parker. And yet, of all these artists, it’s Cohen’s work that touches me most deeply. Amazingly enough, Cohen is one of the few North-American singer/songwriters who also appeals to my husband, albeit for different reasons. The Russian appreciates Cohen’s prince-of-darkness side, whereas I’m drawn more to the poetry and spirituality of his work.
Anthem is one of my favorite Cohen songs (granted I have several). It first appeared on his 1992 album, The Future, and was among three Cohen songs featured in Oliver Stone’s 1994 exploration of mass murder, Natural Born Killers. Not surprisingly, the overall tone of the album is bleak. In the title song, Cohen proclaims that he’s seen the future; “it is murder.”
There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code.
Your private life will suddenly explode.
There’ll be phantoms; there’ll be fires on the road,
and the white man dancing.
You’ll see a woman hanging upside down
her features covered by her fallen gown,
and all the lousy little poets coming round
tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson,
and the white man dancin’.
Anthem, however, strikes a somewhat more hopeful note. The image of a broken world where the light seeps in resonates with my limited knowledge of Jewish mysticism and the teachings of the 16th century rabbi Isaac Luria. That image also brings to mind one of the few lectures from college I still remember from a course on Early Modern Judaism taught by Richard Hecht. I remember it partially because Hecht was one of the most charismatic professors I ever encountered during my long trek through academia, but primarily because his telling of Isaac Luria’s version of the creation story provided the metaphor that came to define my vision of Judaism and the spiritual life.
As Luria tells it, when G-d created the world, G-d poured forth a stream of light into vessels designed to contain it. The vessels, however, cracked under the tremendous strain of the light, shattering into millions upon millions of shards that were scattered across the universe. As Naomi Levy explains in her book Hope Will Find You:
The broken shards are everywhere around us, even within our own souls. And the shards aren’t just garbage to be thrown out, they contain holy sparks, entrapped by divine light. Our task on earth is to repair the world by finding those fragments and restoring them to wholeness.
In this version of the creation story, G-d needs us almost as much as we need G-d. We are called not to be mere passive worshipers, but rather active participants in tikkun olam, repairing the world. It’s our duty to seek out the shards light in everything, even the most ordinary aspects of life, and return them to G-d in hopes of rebuilding creation. The process is endless, for there will always be cracks no matter how many shards we piece back together. Those imperfections can either limit us or make us stronger. As Wallace Stevens so aptly put it, “the imperfect is our paradise.”
This mindset celebrates seeking out the divine in even the most mundane of chores from washing the dishes, to cleaning out the litterbox, to preparing dinner for one’s family. By living in the moment and treating each of these actions as something akin to a prayer, we imbue them with meaning. As Levy notes: “We can only repair creation by caring, by seeking to live up to our highest potential, by uncovering the secret holiness that’s hidden in our ordinary lives.”
A few days ago, Rod Dreher linked to an essay written by a woman who, earlier in her life, had been some kind of radical Christian for Jesus, which translated into her giving away a lot of her possessions, living in Christian communes, setting up tutoring programs in poor neighborhoods, and traveling to war-torn Africa for missionary work–exciting, challenging stuff. Now, married and thirty-something with two young kids at home, she had discovered that, for her, “being in the house all day with a baby and a two-year-old is a lot more scary and a lot harder than being in a war-torn African village. What I need courage for is the ordinary, the daily every-dayness of life.”
My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and zip off a snide comment. And, I admit, part of me would still like to shake her until she realizes how lucky she is. But, having thought about her post a bit more, I’ve developed a certain sympathy. Our culture urges us not to be content with our lives but to keep striving for the next bigger and better thing–the more impressive job, the corner office, the BMW in the driveway–while, at the same time, devaluing the very tasks that keep our households humming along (no wonder so many of them are considered “women’s work”). Particularly if we’re white, privileged, and well-educated, we’re urged to do “important” jobs, to change the world. From that perspective, it’s far easier to find meaning in offering medical care to poor Africans, than it is in changing the baby’s diapers.
And so Cohen urges us not to seek enlightenment in perfect offerings or grand gestures, but to look instead for the cracks in that perfection, for it’s there we’ll find the light of divinity. It’s there “every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.”