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Descendants of Aaron

The Letter of Leonard Cohen to the Hebrews

For observant Jews, sunset Oct. 11 to sunset Oct. 12 encompasses the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Jewish tradition holds to year-by-year predestination: On Yom Kippur God writes into the Book of Life what will happen to each person during the coming year. On and just prior to Yom Kippur, observant Jews try to straighten their paths, confess sins, and seek forgiveness from God and man.

That process is much cleaner in A.D. 2016 than it was in A.D. 16. Then, the Cohen Gadol (high priest) slaughtered a bull, caught its blood in a bowl, sprinkled the spot in the Holy of Holies where the lost Ark of the Covenant had stood, killed a goat, caught its blood in another bowl, and sprinkled again.

Later, the Cohen Gadol mixed together the bull and goat blood and smeared it on each corner of a golden altar. Then eight more sprinklings, removal of the bull’s guts, intertwining and burning of the bodies of bull and goat. Then he slaughtered two rams, caught their blood in a bowl, splashed the blood on an outer altar, cut the rams into pieces, and burned them entirely.

Visualizing that messy process helps us understand the stunning impact of the gospel, as summarized by one hymn: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Christ’s blood, the hymn declares, provides cleansing, pardon, erasure of sins, hope, peace, and righteousness.

One stream of North American music—hymnody, gospel, occasionally country—emphasizes that hope. Another, tormented stream emphasizes bloody lives without hope. Devout Jews now use the Hebrew word gadol (“big” or “great”) to refer to the most revered rabbis of a generation. Applied to music, today’s Cohen Gadol is singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, apparently descended from the original high priest, Aaron, as well as from two grandfathers who both were rabbis.

Generalizations about Leonard Cohen, who turned 82 on Sept. 21, should be tentative because his half-century corpus is huge, but here’s one verse from the first song on his latest album, released on Aug. 12:

“If you are the dealer / Let me out of the game / If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory / Mine must be the shame / You want it darker / We kill the flame.”

Who wants it darker? Leonard Cohen’s musical kingdom and power have been God-haunted for a long time. He has acknowledged that for a time his religion was sex (as in his most famous Bible-referencing song, “Hallelujah”) because “we are irresistibly lonely for each other” and sex is an attempt at uniting. He also noted, though, “Each one of us understands his solitude in the cosmos and longs for some affirmation by the maker of the cosmos.”

On what basis can we expect affirmation? Animal blood? Good deeds? Today’s Cohen Gadol doesn’t say, but in a recent concert he performed one of his pessimistic songs from the 1980s:

“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / … Everybody knows that the Plague is coming / Everybody knows that it’s moving fast / Everybody knows that the naked man and woman / Are just a shining artifact of the past.”

Today’s Cohen Gadol keeps the Sabbath and understands that we can’t be Adam and Eve in Eden. He sees blood:

“Everybody knows that you’re in trouble / Everybody knows what you’ve been through / From the bloody cross on top of Calvary / To the beach of Malibu / Everybody knows it’s coming apart / Take one last look at this Sacred Heart / Before it blows / And everybody knows.”

The Cohen Gadol almost 2,000 years ago, Caiaphas, peered at Christ’s sacred heart. Then Pontius Pilate sent it and the body surrounding it to the bloody cross. Chapter 10 of the Epistle to the Hebrews (including Leonard Cohen, including me) declares, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The good news is that Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” and God said, “I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds. … I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

published as "Our Great Big Hope," in WORLD, October 15, 2016.

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