Leonard Cohen in Nashville in 1968. (Photo/JTA-Tony Vaccaro-Getty Images)
Leonard Cohen in Nashville in 1968. (Photo/JTA-Tony Vaccaro-Getty Images)

What are these Shabbats of Solace? Let Leonard Cohen explain.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
Isaiah 49:14–51:3

The Rabbi of Chelm was sitting with a teenager, looking at the week’s Torah portion, Eikev, and its accompanying haftarah portion, from the prophetic book of Isaiah.

Student: This haftarah has nothing to do with Eikev! What gives?

Rabbi: Right you are. Normally, the haftarah is thematically linked to the week’s Torah portion. But these are not normal days …

Student: You got that right. War, insurrection, climate change, pandemics, white nationalism …

Rabbi: I know. I never thought I would be looking forward to the seven Shabbatot of solace following Tisha B’Av. We need some comforting. This Shabbat is the second of the seven, and once again poetry comes from the last part of the book of Isaiah.

Student: Poetry? I thought the prophets were, well, prophecy.

Rabbi: Personally, I think poets are prophets. But, certainly, one can see the poet at work here. The time is dire, written by a poet prophet who lived in exile a generation after the Babylonian empire demolished Jerusalem, destroyed the Judean state, and exiled much of its population.

Zion says, The Lord has forsaken me and the Master has forgotten me.
Does a woman forget her babe, have no mercy on the child of her womb?
Though she might forget, I will not forget you.
(Isaiah 49:14-15)

The poet uses the land, Zion, in the feminine, and then makes a unique move: presents the impossible idea of a mother forgetting her child, and then says, all the more so, “I will not forget you.”

Student: Meaning, don’t despair.

Rabbi: Nice. One can create a new poem from the first lines of each of the seven poems of comfort:

Comfort, comfort, My people says Your God
Zion says, “The Lord has forsaken me and the Master has forgotten me.”
Afflicted one, stormed, tossed and disconsolate
I am the One who comforts you
Sing barren one, you who has not given birth
Arise shine, for your light has come
I will greatly rejoice in my God

Student: I really don’t believe in God.

Rabbi: Right. Here’s what I believe in: Unexpected Wonder. Around the turn of the last century, my paternal grandparents passed through Ellis Island as immigrants from Chelm in Lithuania. They probably had never seen a room that big. About 90 years later, I attended a fancy, kosher, festive banquet for Jewish educators in the same Great Hall. Imagine someone stopping them in the Great Hall and telling them, in Yiddish, that almost a century from now the only son of their yet-to-be-born only son would be a rabbi and eating salmon right here.

Student: I don’t like fish. Going vegan.

Rabbi: OK, try this out. On Nov. 4, 2008, my wife and I were watching TV with our neighbor, Mary, as then-president-elect Barack Obama gave his election-night victory speech in Chicago. Mary was a longtime resident of Chicago and was weeping. “What’s going on?” we asked.

She said, “That’s Grant Park. That’s where the 1968 police riot happened during the Democratic National Convention. Forty years ago! Imagine that! I was there. If you had told me that a biracial, person of color would be standing with his wife, a descendant of slaves, and their two daughters, before a quarter million people, I would not have believed it.”

Student: So, you’re an optimist?

Rabbi: No. I am a hopeful pessimist. The difference is that hope means never give up, work for what seems to be impossible, in your life, or in the future, there may be an Unexpected Wonder.

Student: What does a hopeful pessimistic poet sound like today?

Ahhh, thought the Rabbi of Chelm, cue Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. 

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud

And they’re going to hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].