A Broken Hallelujah

These remarks were delivered at Chicago Sinai Congregation on Kol Nidre 2008.

I must begin with an acknowledgement of appreciation to Rev. Barbara Merritt of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA, whom I have never met, but whose lovely sermon provided the inspiration for this address. We may be of different faiths, but I found her Christmas message of 2007 to be so in the spirit of Kol Nidre that I wanted to share some of her insights with you, along with my own.

She wrote that when she first began seriously to consider the ministry, she found a stumbling block in the expectation that people should “praise” God: still more in the suggestion the God Himself actually is interested in being praised. I said to myself: “That could be me speaking.” The most basic Hebrew prayers are the blessings that invariably conclude with the words: “Baruch Atah Adonai.” We praise You, Eternal God. I often wonder: why in the world would God need praise?

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

One of the most overworked words in the Bibles of both Judaism and Christianity is “Hallelujah,” which literally means “Praise God.” Even after all these years, I still can’t understand why we need to praise God so much. Could God possibly be so insecure that God needs to be told how great God is? Or worse, do we really believe that God could be susceptible to flattery?

Have you had the experience of hearing a song and then not being able to get it out of your head? There is a song has been repeating itself in my mind for a long time. It is entitled “Hallelujah.” by the Canadian Jewish poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. It has been performed by many singers. It was sung in the movie “Shreck.” Apparently, it took Leonard Cohen five years to write this song. Its melody is both touching and somber. The more I have listened to it, the more I have come to recognize that this “Hallelujah” expresses the struggles that many of us go through, especially on a night such as this, when we are expected to praise God, but our hearts may not be in it.

To begin with: this is not a Hallelujah of celebration, such as, say, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Instead, there is a lot of pain expressed—the pain of failure and disappointment. It contains vaguely religious allusions—Hallelujah, King David, various references to brokenness: disappointment, personal failure, the loss of love, the loss of optimism. In one memorable verse, Cohen writes: “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”

Our music director has told me that the Kol Nidré and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah have something in common. Both are composed in an ambivalent combination of major and minor chords, a musical metaphor perhaps for alternating expressions of joy and of sorrow. The music symbolizes the lifelong tension between defeat and victory, between despair and hope. And it is of interest that both songs conclude in the relative major key, hopeful but still not without a degree of ambivalence.

Bob Dylan told Leonard Cohen that he especially liked the lines: “even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a reluctant psalm of praise, expressing gratitude in the midst of the sorrow that come from the broken times in our lives, the failures that haunt us all, the disappointments that weigh more and more heavily us as we grow older. It is probably not so much a song for the young as for those who have dealt with the endless ups and the downs, and who can relate to the words from their own life experiences. In “Hallelujah” Leonard Cohen struggles to affirm, in spite of all the pain and sadness that we have known, still life is good, every day is a blessing, and therefore we praise and express gratitude to God, even in our darkest hours. The important thing is not that God should hear our praise, but rather that we express gratitude for the gift of life itself, especially when are feeling anything but thankful, because it is the only life we have.

A favorite rabbinic legend comes to mind, one that for me is a continuous source of both comfort and inspiration. In the Book of Exodus, we read that Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. At last, he descended from the mountain, ready to present God’s commandments to the Israelite people. One can barely imagine his sense of elation and of hope concerning the gift of the Law which he was about to deliver. What he did not know was that, while he was absent, the people had become impatient and had built the golden calf, which they were now worshipping in the manner that their Egyptian overlords had worshipped other idols.

Filled with anger and profound disappointment, Moses cast the tablets to the ground and they were smashed into countless fragments. Later, following the people’s repentance, Moses is said to have fashioned a second set of tablets, just like the first set, and these were the ones that were placed into the Ark of the Covenant, eventually to be placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.

So, the rabbis ask: “What ever happened to the first set of the commandments, to the shattered fragments?” And their answer is that both sets of tablets, both the whole and the shattered, were placed together in the ark. Both belonged there.

What we have in this legend is a paradigm for life itself. The Ark of the Covenant is our hearts. These hold both the whole and the shattered elements of our lives, of our personal experiences. And these belong together.

In spite of everything—Baruch Atah Adonai, Hallelujah, “Praise to God.” How are we supposed to praise God when our hopes have been shattered or our hearts have been broken? That’s a very daunting challenge, but it is also an obligation.

You may wonder what exactly does “Hallelujah” mean? Hallelujah is the commandment to praise, not the invitation or the suggestion. In the Jewish faith, it is a mitzvah,—it doesn’t matter whether our hearts are overflowing with joy or weighed down by sorrow.
Even for those whose faith is secure, this is no easy task: when we are in pain, when we are not in good health, when a cherished friendship has ended, when a family has been broken apart, when we have lost a dear one.

Still, as Leonard Cohen expresses to poignantly “love in not a victory march… it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”

Sooner or later, every one of us drinks from the bitter cup. Things go smoothly; things fall apart. That’s life. We go back and forth between between gratitude and disappointment. And in the midst of this never-ending tug of war we are called to appreciate, to affirm that life is good; “Hallelujah.” “Baruch Atah Adonai.”

This song, so mixed with both joy and pathos, tells us something that is true of every life from the simplest to the most notable. It begins with a reference to King David, one of the greatest figures of all time, and yet whose personal life was anything but perfect. Even the great King David had to come to terms with his own personal failures.

The song says what we all need to admit, especially on this Day of Atonement. We are not perfect. We make mistakes, some of them really bad mistakes, transgressions, ok—I’ll say it: sins. We waste precious time on things that don’t matter, we wound those we love; they wound us. Wonderful things happen; really terrible things happen. And when it’s all said and done, amidst all of our disappointments and failures, and we all have our share, we have to do our best to appreciate this one brief life that God has given us.

Naomi Shemer , the Israeli poet and songwriter, of blessed memory, that wrote a simple but lovely song that expresses this very thought perfectly: It is entitled “Al Kol Eileh …for all these things:”

Al hadvash ve’al ha’o-kets,
Al ha-mar v’ha-ma-tok,
Al bittei-nu ha-tinoket sh’mor eyli ha-tov.

Every bee that brings the honey needs a sting to be complete.
And we all must learn to taste both the bitter and the sweet.

That is, I believe, the task of human life: that we may be given the wisdom to recognize and regret how we have failed, to mourn for what we have lost, but also to appreciate simply the blessings that our ours. And if it is not exactly with the most enthusiastic chorus of joy, so let it be what Leonard Cohen so perfectly calls: a broken Hallelujah.

The High Holy Days season is the right time to raise our voices in praise. It hardly matters whether we feel like doing so: We praise anyway. Is God impressed even with the majestic choral rendition of Hallelujah, or with our seemingly endless “Baruch Atah Adonai’s? I don’t think so. But that is not the point. Regardless of how many times our hopes have been dashed, no matter how disappointed we may be feeling about ourselves, still we praise.

Leonard Cohen ends his “Hallelujah” with a most humble admission:

“I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.
I’ve told the truth. I haven’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

May each one of us to be strong enough and, yes, also human enough to acknowledge our imperfections, to mourn our losses; and simply to be grateful for that mixed bag of blessings, the jumbled and bewildering amalgam of experiences that we call life and yes, in spite of everything, to express a heartfelt albeit broken Hallelujah.

With appreciation to Rev. Barbara Merritt.