Here Am I

Have you heard Leonard Cohen's new song? The one released yesterday. The one called "You Want It Darker." The one the reports tell us was released on Cohen's eighty-second birthday. The one, these same reports say, that will come packaged with Cohen's new album on October 21. The one—and this is the date that truly matters—that beckons the arrival of the Jewish new year and, with it, Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, the most sacred day in the Jewish year.

Cohen's Jewishness has always shaded his music. Here, though, the whole song is stitched with its color. "You Want It Darker" is a low and supplicating prayer, and it's a burial hymn. There is too much to say about it, but for now, just this: when Cohen, in the chorus, chants, "Hineni, hineni, I'm ready, my Lord," he's not chanting nonsense. Hineni means "Here I am or Here am I" in Hebrew. These are the words Abraham speaks first to God and then to his son, Isaac, before he binds Isaac to the altar. They are desperate and naked and terrible words. They are the same words sung each year during Yom Kippur by the chazzan, the cantor, on behalf of the congregation:

Here am I that am poor in deed, rattled and afraid, in awe of Him who sits in wait for the praises of Israel, standing to plead before Him for His people Israel who have sent me, though I am not fit or worthy for the task. 

In my family's shul when I was growing up, the chazzan would start in the back of the room and slowly make his way down the center aisle as he chanted. Those high holiday services were often so long, so boring, so remote. I would stand aching and restless in my penny loafers. I wanted to go home to the TV and to bare feet. But not then. When the chazzan chanted the Hineni, everything stopped. We were transfixed. In retrospect those moments feel like blessed parts of my now-dispersed Jewish inheritance.

And so here comes Leonard Cohen in his impossible baritone on a hot September day to stun me and move me, to virtually call up all of Jewish history from Abraham to the fidgety boy standing next to his mom and dad in the middle of the shul on some other hot September day not very long ago.

Update, November 7, 2016: Leonard Cohen is dead at age 82.