Days of Awe: You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen

by Bob Schwartz

Leonard Cohen mural in Montreal

The Days of Awe (Jewish High Holy Days) are coming to a close with Yom Kippur. It has been my practice to share words of wisdom this time of year. There seems so much foolishness around right now that wisdom is a tough sell.

(And, by the way, if your finger is pointing to the most obvious big fools, consider that we are all fools. The difference is not just degree but self-awareness. Remember the log in your own eye.)

Leonard Cohen (1934-2106) is one of the most astonishing poet/songwriters of a generation. He took inspiration from many sources, including his native Judaism. For Yom Kippur, an obvious example is Who By Fire, his version of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer recited on that holy day. I’ve posted about that before.

Shortly before his death in 2016 he released the track You Want It Darker. It contains a direct reference to a profound expression that appears multiple times in the Torah: Hineni. Here I am. In the Bible it is in answer to a call from God. In the song, it is equally stark, coming from a man unwell and near death: Hineni, hineni/I’m ready, my lord.

The song is a poem, so subject to interpretation by the creator and by us, the listeners. It inspires in me a number of thoughts, including this: Light and dark, defiance and acceptance, help and abandonment, are the nature of things. Things as they are. We are reminded in this holiday to practice teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah—turning/repentance, prayer and charity—and we may try. We work to relieve suffering, eliminate folly and light candles. But suffering abides, we are also fools, and we may negligently or purposely allow the candles to go out, or even snuff them.

It is a new year. It is Yom Kippur. Here we are.

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame