Aside from the obligatory blintzes, two Shavuot traditions I treasure are studying Torah late into the night and hearing Megillat Ruth. I was fortunate enough to partake in both this year, and from them arose two thoughts that I’ve since been reflecting on. Since we often envision Torah as coming on two tablets at Sinai, and since Torah is considered to be an ongoing revelation and exploration, herewith my dosage of two tablets.
For my late-night Torah, I typically go to a fabulous community-wide event in Brookline, which is co-sponsored by a wide array of congregations and other learning organizations. There are concurrent study sessions from 9pm till 4:30am on a dizzying variety of topics, punctuated at intervals by dinner, dessert, and a veritable Jordan River of coffee.
I’ve never managed to make it all night, but last night I stayed my longest yet — till nearly 1am. One memorable session I attended was entitled, “The Secret Chord that Pleased the Lord: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah,” in which we sang the famous song, then dissected it in chevruta groups. We jumped off by talking about some of the threads that run through the song: love, loss, searching, bitterness, and indescribable sweetness. To me, the strongest thread — almost too obvious to mention — is the word itself: Hallelujah.
Translated literally, it means, “Praise G-d.” This being Leonard Cohen, though, praising G-d is not a simple matter. The lyric offers a smudged look at biblical figures, from Saul to David, to Batsheva, to Samson. We see them here as humans, as human as the rest of us: Saul the baffled king, David grappling with his faith and his longings. There is muted love and aching loss; nothing in this praise is triumphal or unencumbered. And when Cohen obliquely addresses his own relationship with G-d — “You say I took the name in vain / I don’t even know the name” — it’s with a sense of “whatever” capped by yet another Hallelujah.
In a commentary on the song, Cohen wrote: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by Hallelujah.”
Legend has it that Cohen wrote eighty verses to this song. Whether they all follow a single narrative trail or whether they are tiles in a larger mosaic, each one culminates in a hard-won Hallelujah. Wherever we are, whatever we’ve been through, there is always praise. Praise is the ground upon which we walk, a ground which sometimes threatens to bury us but which ultimately holds us up. We may not know the name, we may not dare to understand the nature of G-d. Our praise doesn’t have to be fancy, for as Cohen teaches us, there is a blaze of light in every word, the holy and the broken Hallelujah.
Like my children, I have the same name in English and in Hebrew. People often ask me the significance of my name, and in answering I have always focused on the literal meaning: sweet and pleasant. In fact, I’ve always been a little snide about it, as though there is no power in my Hebrew name, it’s just a namby-pamby sweetness and light kind of thing.
This morning’s reading of the Book of Ruth brought me a new perspective. Naomi, a major character in the story, starts with everything: a husband and two sons. And she loses everything: a husband and two sons. Everything she thought was true about her world came to nothing.
And that’s when she began to find out what she was made of.
After her losses, she journeyed back to her homeland with her loyal daughter-in-law Ruth. There she resourcefully found a way, despite her diminished status as a widow, to make a living and align herself and Ruth with her late husband’s relative, Boaz. And through Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, came the lineage of King David.
What looked like the end of the line — literally — turned out to be a corner for Naomi. And although she seemed to lose faith in the middle there, asking to be called Marah (bitter) instead of Naomi, she ultimately kept her name, persevered, and lived to see the son of Boaz and Ruth, who himself would become the grandfather of the great King David.
This ancient history echoes a bit of ancient history of my own. Thank G-d my losses have not been as great as the biblical Naomi’s. Nonetheless, some years ago my family seemed to be under a dark cloud — illness, financial loss, and isolation embittered our days, and for a time it seemed as though we would never recover.
And then, gradually, and thanks both to loving companions and relentless striving, we did. The experience was arduous and deeply rewarding, teaching us along the way what is most important to us, and giving us the opportunity to experience true community and selflessness. It also inspired us to be more resourceful than we’d ever needed to be. I would not have chosen for those hard times to come to us — nobody would — but I am glad for all the learning and growth they afforded us.
I hadn’t seen the parallels between the original Naomi and myself until this morning when I received that bit of Torah on Shavuot.
There is a blaze of light in every word, and today I saw a glimpse of the one that belongs to me.