Two Eliezers: A Singing Priest and a Reluctant Prophet Among Us
A Tribute for Leonard Cohen & Elie Wiesel
by Yosef Wosk
December 11, 2016
Over the past few months we have lost two Great Ones, both blessed with the venerable Hebrew name, Eliezer, “God is my helper”.
One was a prophet, the other a priest although both would deny the title.
The Two Eliezers were Leonard Cohen, whose Hebrew name was Eliezer ben Nissan Ha’Kohain v’Masha, and our teacher Elie Wiesel, Eliezer ben Shlomo Ha’Levi v’Sarah.
If Elie was the reluctant prophet, then Leonard was the mischievous priest. They inhabited the archetypes of prophet and priest not because they wanted to but rather because they expressed themselves so honestly, so deeply, so painfully. They were also recognized as such and accorded those roles by others.
This two hundred year old European menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum rescued from the ashes of the Holocaust, will now be kindled to welcome light in the midst of Winter and the World’s darkness.
A menorah remained one of Leonard’s favoured possessions. A New Yorker article published just a month before his passing, described his modest living quarters during the 1990s when he moved to a Zen monastery: “Cohen lived in a tiny cabin that he outfitted with a coffeemaker, a menorah, a keyboard, and a laptop.”
Elie Wiesel also made it his life’s purpose to bring light and bear witness.
“You want it Darker?” asked the Eliezers to their God.
— strike match —
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— light honey candle —
September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016
Born on September 21st, 1934, just before the Autumnal Equinox, he came from a lineage of community scholars and leaders. He could trace his ancestry back 3500 years to Aaron, the brother of Moses and Miriam, to Aaron the first kohain, the first priest in Israel.
Leonard was both a gifted, complex, individual and a simple supplicant to the Lord of Song. When I experienced him in concert, I was profoundly moved by the sincere intensity of expression. When, in the midst of song, he bent down on one knee, sometimes two, when he held the microphone in one hand and raised the other to his head, fingers spread as if in prayer, his hat forward, eyes shut, face in shadow but spirit aglow, I realized that “Here is the real Kohain Gadol, the High Priest of Israel.” Theatre was transformed into Temple; sacrifice was not of animal but of soul; the moment was no longer a future expectation but a present revelation.
One of my favourite Leonard Cohen stories—of which there are variations—was told by Dr. Marvin Weintraub. He was living in Montreal many years ago when he heard a young CBC radio interviewer ask Leonard if he was concerned about his last name Cohen, an obvious Jewish reference that might attract anti-Semitism. She asked him if he ever considered changing his name, to which Leonard responded: “Yes, I have.” “To what?” she queried. “To August”, he replied. To which, in bewilderment, she blurted out: “To Leonard August?” “No,” he paused, “To August Cohen”.
September 30, 1928 — July 2, 2016
Although Elie Wiesel was six years older, Leonard and he were born just a few days apart in September: Elie on Sukkot and Leonard between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Leonard was the Cohen, the priest, and Elie the Levi, the teacher; brothers who never met, brothers from the same biblical family of Kehat, son of Levi, grandson of Ya’akov, the same Jacob who dreamed of ladders ascending to heaven, the same Jacob who became Israel as he wrestled with angels and struggled with humankind. Elie Wiesel and Leonard Cohen were ancient brothers born into modern incarnations, sons of the patriarchs and servants of the muse.
If Leonard was best known for his music, Elie Wiesel was known for his words. And yet Leonard was also a master of words and Elie a virtuoso of song.
When we first meet the Creator in the Book of Genesis, he is depicted as a Speaker (“and God said ‘Let there be light’. . .”) and an Artist (who “formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”). When woman and man are described it is with the words: “Created in the Image of God”. The truest metaphor for the Creator—as for humanity’s highest calling—is the speaker and artist, the poet, the singer and the song. This is how creation was called into being; all the rest is commentary.
Elie Wiesel transmitted revered melodies he heard in Chassidic Courts in Europe. He also composed songs and conducted choirs and orchestras on special occasions. If not for the horror of the Holocaust he might have grown up to be both an important writer and a musical maestro. I once found an antique conductor’s baton at an auction and sent it to him as a gift, for what is a conductor without his baton, a magician without his wand, or a prophet without his staff?
I had the privilege of studying with Prof. Wiesel at Boston University for five years and remember, on rare occasions when words were no longer sufficient, he would pause in his teaching and sing a niggun, a haunting melody without words. “Music is my life,” he said. “When I write I need music, and a very special kind. It must not be symphonic because I cannot concentrate with symphonic music, but chamber music or choral music, requiems, which are my favourite musical compositions.”
Why do I refer to him as reluctant and as a prophet?
He was only reluctant in that he was humble but after the horrors of injustice, violence and war were inflicted upon him and millions of others, he spoke and wrote with the passionate voice of a prophet. In the early 1990s when he was our guest at Simon Fraser University, I introduced him as the “conscience of our generation”. He protested: “I am not the conscience; everyone must have their own”. And yet, many years later even President Obama called him “the conscience of the world”. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 as “a messenger to mankind” and “a human being dedicated to humanity”, he explained his actions by saying the whole world knew what was happening in the concentration camps but did nothing. “That is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.”
Most prophets were reluctant. According to the Midrash, Moses argued with God at the Burning Bush for seven days and seven nights in an effort to not take on the mantle of Divine Messenger. One biblical prophet, Amos, protested: Lo navi anokhi ve’lo ben navi anokhi, “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet”. And yet, he, too, was conscripted.
Prophecy was not just vision but also voice, the imperative to speak out, to act, to warn, to challenge, and ultimately to console.
“We must always take sides”, Elie Wiesel said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And he astutely observed that “the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference”.
I invite us now to recite the Kaddish—the traditional memorial prayer—for the two Eliezers.
Kaddish for Eliezer ben Shlomo Ha’Levi v’Sarah, Elie Wiesel, the Reluctant Prophet and Master Teacher.
And Kaddish for Eliezer ben Nissan Ha’Kohain, Leonard the son of Nathan and Masha, the Singing Priest (who also referred to himself in transparent honesty mixed with self-deprecating humour as “a lazy bastard in a suit”, and as “Jikan, the useless monk bows his head”). His lyrics on You Want It Darker, released just a month before his death, paraphrased the Kaddish:
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 —
I’m ready, my lord
Both are no longer among us; but we remain a part of them.
[Singing Bowl . . .]
Yitgadal ve’Yitkadash Shmai Rabbah . . .
Hallelujah: The Word and the Song
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
The Hebrew word halleluyah is at least three thousand years old. In the Talmudic Tractate Psahim, it is described as the most important word used to praise the Master of the Universe because it is composed of a combination of two words: hallel, which means praise; and Yah, which is a name of God.
There are many names of God. One kabbalist described the entire Torah, all of Creation, as nothing but the Names of God.
But this name, Yah, is among the shortest. It has only two letters, the two letters through which the Upper and the Lower Worlds were created: the Yud and the Hey. The Yud is considered the most spiritual of all letters; it is written above the line and is the only one that remains entirely suspended in Heaven.
The second letter, the Hey, has an opening on its side through which it is impregnated. It also sits firmly with two supporting legs on Earth through which this material world was birthed.
The word halleluyah can now be understood as “Praised is God,” or as Leonard referred to it as “Glory to the Lord” or “Blessed is the name!” In the mystical sense it means “Praised is the Creator of the Upper and Lower Worlds”.
When the word was transcribed into various languages—including Latin and related European tongues—it took on various spellings and pronunciations with some confusion between the y and the j sound. When the Jamaican Rastafarians exclaim “Jah Guide”, it means Yah will guide, God will guide, God guide us.
How long did it take to write this most iconic of songs?
There are traditions in Japan that the most perfect haiku—the short poem that seems to burst forth inspired and complete—actually took years to get it just right. Basho was once asked how long it took him to compose a particular haiku. He replied: “Forty years”.
In David Remnick’s essay on Leonard in the New Yorker Magazine, Bob Dylan is quoted as referring to Leonard’s songs as prayers and said: “his gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.”
Here is a longer excerpt regarding Hallelujah:
Over the decades, Dylan and Cohen saw each other from time to time. In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,’” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.
“Two years,” Cohen lied.
Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself . . . banging his head against a hotel-room floor.
Cohen told Dylan, “I really like “I and I,” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?”
“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.
When I asked Cohen about that exchange, he said, “That’s just the way the cards are dealt.”
One of my favourite Leonard Cohen stories was told by Dr. Marvin Weintraub. He was living in Montreal many years ago when he heard a young CBC radio interviewer ask Leonard if he was concerned about his last name Cohen, an obvious Jewish reference that might attract anti-Semitism. She asked him if he ever considered changing his name, to which Leonard responded: “Yes, I have.” “To what?” she queried. “To September”, he replied. To which, in bewilderment, she blurted out: “To Leonard September?” “No,” he paused, “To September Cohen”.
Imagine now the spirit of the two Eliezers
together in conversation,
singing and writing,
the mysteries revealed,
harmonizing, at last, on
the Secret Chord.
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 (extinguish candle)
Hineni, my lord, I’m ready
I’m ready, my lord, hineni
Hineni, I’m ready, hineni
Photo of Eli Wiesel. NPR (National Public Radio)
Photo of Menorah from https://photos.yadvashem.org/photo-details.html?language=en&item_id=27429&ind=3
 In 1993, Wiesel spoke at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. His words, which echo his life’s work, are carved in stone at the entrance to the museum: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
 From Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem.
 New Yorker Magazine, October 17, 2016, p. 50; online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker. Also highly recommended is “Leonard Cohen: A Final Interview” by The New Yorker and David Remnick’s edited audio recording of the interview https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/leonard-cohen-a-final-interview.
 This story is corroborated in Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years by Michael Posner (New York and Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2020). Cohen’s birthday was September 21st. I project he came up with this alternate name, in which he transposed time and personal name, while high on marijuana or on an LSD trip.