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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Holela: A Certain Kind of Madness

Leonard Cohen, the nation's aged, craggy poet and raspy balladeer laureate, died this week at age 82.

He gave us thoughtful, poetic songs about religion and romance like "Suzanne" and "Bird on a Wire" and, of course, "Hallelujah". 

There is an irony, for me at least, about his death so soon after the death of everything so many of us thought we knew about ourselves,  each other and this country. 

Can there be many who don't know the haunting beauty of his song, "Hallelujah"? 

It's been covered so many times by so many artists in so many situations - from the movie Shrek to the Memorial at the Emmy Awards, to my personal favorite by K.D. Lang - that Cohen even agreed with a critic’s plea in 2009 for a moratorium on the song’s usage in movies and on TV.  

If you listen to Cohen's original recording of his song, on his 1984 album "Various Positions," you hear something different. Something darker. Something more ominous. Something about the death of dreams and the paradox of love and how taking the risk of living into either one can lead to the possibility of healing and/or hurt, devastation and/or inspiration.

You hear in his craggy, ragged voice something about mortality and the fragility of life. You hear something about how dreams and love can sometimes lead mere mortals to amazing foolishness and degradation as well as incredible achievements and miraculous nobility. 

He wrote the song in 1984. It's probably no coincidence that Ronald Regan was elected President of the United States in November of that same year. I remember hearing it played at the deathbeds and funerals of so many people who were dying of AIDS.

The story goes that it took Cohen two years and eighty verses - some of them written while sitting in his underwear on the floor of the Royalton Hotel in New York, banging his head on the floor. If you listen, you can hear that in his song, as well.

Which is about right for a song about which the author once said,  " . . . explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value."

Hallelujah - or Alleluia - is a word of no small significance in communities of faith. But it doesn't always mean what we think it means. 

Most linguistic and Hebrew scholars agree that it is an amalgam of two words, the last "jah" is derived from the Hebrew word for God YHWH.  The first part, "halal" is usually understood to be an imperative form - a command - of the word "praise", but that's the easy version of translation.

Halal is also what lamps and celestial bodies do: shine.  In Job (41:10) this verb is employed to state how the sneezes of Leviathan "flash forth light". 

The masculine noun (mahalel) means "praise" or "rejoicing" or "congratulations".  The feminine noun (tehilla), means praise, song of praise or thanksgiving or adoration; it can also denote praiseworthy deeds.

But, there are two other feminine nouns, holela and holelut, which derive from this root word for praise, but ones which denote a kind of madness. It is usually associated with a sort of inexplicable exuberance; a deep joy which defies understanding or explanation.

One of my professors, a very wise Rabbi from New York, a very long time ago, once said to me that 
"Holela is the sound that comes from the intersection of suffering and wisdom; it is the sound of prayer, the sound of faith, the sound of hope, the sound of trust in God, which suffering tells us is foolish and wisdom tells us is truth."
He may or may not have known that, explicitly, but I have a sense that that's exactly what Cohen was expressing when he wrote this song.  Holela. It's what lead him to sit on the floor in his underwear in the NY hotel, banging his head on the floor.

Holela haunts this song, dancing seductively over the words, teasing out the melody until there is a sad but merciful and creative intercourse of the two. That's why it all sounds so painful and beautiful, all at the same time. 

It's what makes the song so compelling. We know it, not so much with our minds but intuitively. It speaks with "flashes of light from the sneeze of the ancient Leviathan" to the things we keep hidden in the darkest corners of the heart and soul. Its creativity is sensual and sexual; it is deeply spiritual and hopelessly romantic.

Holela captures almost precisely what I'm feeling after the madness of this week. 

Something has died, but something new is stirring in my soul. A new clarity about my identity - our identity as a nation -  which leads me to a new resolve. An emerging but yet clearly unidentified determination. 

When I can get out of my own way - my own sense of defeat and disappointment - I find enormous waves of gratitude washing over me. For Hillary. For her courage. For her intelligence. For her years of experience and service. For her class. For her grace - especially under enormous, impossible pressure.

For her willingness to carry the dream and hold the dream and risk the dream for all of us; for love of her people and her country. 

There's a certain kind of madness to that. Especially right now, less than a week later. 

Especially after hate crimes are on the rise, immigrants and people of different skin color and religious expression - here in the 'home of the brave and the land of the free" - are living in fear and terror, and women are, once again, targets for spiritual and emotional and physical abuse.

Even so, I find myself whispering, "Holela." It is my prayer. It is my statement of faith. 

It's the last verse of Cohen's song that has gotten me through this dreadful week. 
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
Here I stand, with nothing on my tongue but Holela.

Thank you for the inspiration and permission to do that, Leonard Cohen.

Thank you for the inspiration and courage to do that, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It's a certain kind of madness, I know. But, at least I have gotten up from sitting on the floor in my underwear; I have stopped banging my head on the floor.

It may be different for you - no doubt, it is, and that's okay - but even though it all went wrong, standing upright before God, whispering and croaking "Holela" from the depths of my broken heart, seems absolutely the right place to be at this particular moment in time.

Call me crazy. You may be right. I stand in good company with women, ancient and modern, from all countries and cultures and creeds.



David said...


Cara said...

Thank you for a great perspective on our cumlative madness. Hallelujah. Amen.

Mary Clara said...

Right there with you, sister.
God, I used to stay at the Royalton on visits to New York!
Hope you got to see Kate MacKinnon salute both Leonard and Hillary tonight by singing "Hallelujah" to open SNL.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you and God bless us, one and all.