Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Haunted all week by Leonard Cohen and his “Alexandra Leaving”

In Uncategorized on October 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Anyone who hasn’t witnessed the celebration for the “House of Drawing of Water” has never witnessed a truly joyous occasion in his life.” (Mishnah Succah 5:3)

Leonard Cohen understands the misery of loss and memory, and his remedy is evoked in this poem and its haunting melody. The song is based on a poem written by Constantine P. Cavafy entitled The god Abandons Anthony. The original poem evokes the loss of Mark Anthony’s beloved Alexandria, while Cohen personifies the loss of someone deeply loved–who left.  Instead, however, of saying goodbye to the beloved, Cohen tells us to say goodbye to the painful moment of the leaving:

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,

Say goodbye to Alexandra lost

The temptation to say that the sublime moment was to begin with not real, but only imagined, because it is no longer, is a protection that Cohen warns against:

As someone long prepared for this to happen,

Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.

Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.

Your first commitments tangible again.

This Mishnah that details the most unforgettable party in Jewish tradition creates an occasion to celebrate during these in between days of Succot. We know these present day celebrations have not the grandeur, the fervor, or the power of what we once had, but during those moments of memory and pale re-enactment, we celebrate while we remember.  We shake our branches all seven days while we remember, and we pound our willows, while we remember.  For once, we do not focus on the why of the destruction, but only appreciate the memory of a place where atonement was tangible, accessible.  Well, what happens when it all goes away? Leonard Cohen says we must resist the temptation to feel deceived.

Do not say the moment was imagined,

Do not stoop to strategies as this.

In Jewish tradition, pending on the season, we do both. We stoop to the strategies of cause and effect, but we also leave that dynamic for moments of actualizing memory as part of our present, when we “say goodbye to Alexandra leaving, and say goodbye to Alexandra lost.”

In romance, the enigmas of cause and effect may very well be beyond our understanding, and Cohen sees the falseness and cravenness in self loathing that halt the good memories and only accentuate the loss.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;

In full command of every plan you wrecked—

Do not choose a coward’s explanation

that hides behind the cause and the effect,

It is true that when it comes to ruining things, we have some control, but there is partnership in both success and failure.  Succot and its commandment to be joyful says goodbye, at least for the moment, to what Cohen calls the “coward’s explanation”.

Now, maybe, I can do something else.

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  1. […] Torah and Strange Thoughts posted this meditation on one of my favorite songs and […]

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