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Angels and dust: A Yom Kippur conversation with Leonard Cohen 5781

The Day of Atonement doesn't mean we stop doing wrong; it means we can pause and appreciate how God's patience with humanity allows us to continue to grow
People ride their bicycles along the empty road in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the holiest of Jewish holidays, October 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People ride their bicycles along the empty road in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the holiest of Jewish holidays, October 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There is a long running debate throughout the writings of  the sages as to the who is greater — the angels or humankind?

In the end, in their usual counterintuitive way, the Rabbis show how people, with their limitations and passions and messiness, are superior to angels in their static purity and spiritual rigidity. This dynamic plays out in the Kedushah prayer, where we use the praises sung by the angels and declare the superior quality of our rough, imperfect, but heartfelt praise of the Master of the Universe.

In his “Book of Mercy,” Leonard Cohen offers up a deeply personal, contemporary Kedushah that taps into the spiritual audacity of the classical prayer. This little book is a precious collection of 50 modern psalms/prose poems by Leonard Cohen that I find myself returning to again and again, especially in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. Cohen weaves the sounds and textures of Jewish prayer into this tapestry of poetic strivings. You can see this clearly in poem #43:

43

HOLY IS YOUR NAME, HOLY is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming. Holy, and shining with a great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.

The medieval Hebrew poets would compose poems to introduce and enliven the fixed parts of the prayer service. Whether it was a poem exploring the wonder of the soul as it stands before God as a prelude to “Nishmat,” or a meditation on the storm-tossed love between God and the Jewish people before the blessing declaring “He who loves His People Israel,” right before the “Shema” prayer, these sacred verses were meant to draw their contemporary audience into a renewed engagement with the classic prayers. I find this small prose poem to work in a similar way. Cohen opens up the fixed lines of the kedushah and invites us to use the angel’s praises to embrace the complexity of our luminous and broken world and the generosity and fragility of our hearts.

The tension between the transcendent and the earthly runs through the experience of Yom Kippur observance. On Yom Kippur, we are like angels because we do not eat or drink like humans normally do, and, in this, we seem to nod at the superiority of the heavenly creatures. On Yom Kippur, when we say the Shema prayer, instead of quietly reciting the line of praise, as we normally do every other day of the year, we scream out this line, a line which belongs in the mouths of angels:

Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed — Blessed be the name of His Honor and Majesty for ever and ever

We spend our day like the angels, praising and basking in the divine presence.

And yet, we know that we are not angels, we are only playing like angels. Our white shawls and canvas shoes are a thin costume barely hiding the hard truth that Yom Kippur only gives us a taste of the angelic, the pure, of what living life unencumbered by passions and limitations feels like. Throughout the day, the liturgy leads us through incessant rounds of confession, declarations of being purified in the divine waters of the God’s mikveh, His cleansing waters, of calling out the secret identity of God’s true self, that which was revealed to Moshe Rabbenu from behind the cleft of the rock on Mt. Sinai after the depth of the Children of Israel’s depravity-

Hashem, Hashem, Compassionate Lord, a God who is long in patience, of great Kindness and Truth, who stores up kindness for millennia, who lifts up sins and evil and errors and purifies

With each passing declaration, it is as if we rise up for air, gasping the sweet oxygen only to remember that it is a moment of truth, of wisdom, of insight that allows us to see our lives anew, as people committed to growth, to change, to pushing ourselves and becoming who we know we can be.

And yet we also know that after the final triumphant shofar blast, once the day is through and we begin our return to our post-Yom Kippur lives, we will begin the evening prayer,  Ma’ariv, and we will all declare that we are happy to be praying to a God who is compassionate and atones for sins:

והוא רחום יכפר עוון

He who is Compassionate and atones for sins.

The cycle will begin again and we will fall again into our negative patterns, slip into our small mindedness and worse

And yet and yet: today we were higher than the angels.

I want to consider just one line from song #43:

Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience.

We are not angels — we carry with us much which is unredeemed and thanks to God’s patience — erech apayim –– those parts are still with us, they are part of us. Even with all that unredeemed “stuff,” we continue to grow and unfold under His wisdom, with the life energy of the world pulsing through us, giving us breath every moment — God’s patience.

We need God’s patience and we need to share it with each other, we need to share it next time anyone — but especially those close to us — bother us, hurt us, confuse us — to have patience with them, to tap into God’s patience and see them as unredeemed, but part of the divine universe, just like us.

About the Author
Ronnie Perelis is the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University and the director of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs of Yeshiva University. Prof. Perelis explores the complex relationship between Iberian and Jewish culture in his scholarship and teaching. Perelis believes that the past can inform and energize the present.
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