In the years I’ve spent closely listening to him, Leonard Cohen has taught me many things: how to think about history, how to read a poem, how to chase God. But the greatest gift he gave me, maybe, is showing me how to be kind.
I caught my first glimpse of it some years ago, having just finished writing a book about him. Leonard had read it, and he invited me to join him and his band at an intimate gathering at his hotel in New York following one of his concerts here. I said I’d be there and, light-headed, rushed to my closet to figure out what one wore to a night out with Leonard Cohen. I wanted to impress him, and so I put on what I thought was my most discerning outfit and spent an hour circling the block and practicing the clever speech I’d give when I first met my hero.
I ran into him as soon as my wife and I walked into the hotel’s lobby. I dipped into my act, but he interrupted me with his warm smile and took me by the hand, walking me around and introducing me to friends and bandmates, praising me and my writing with the earnest joy of a grandfather taking pleasure in a dear child. I was elated, of course, and more than a little bit awed. I didn’t really understand why this famous and desired man would spend so much time with me, a jittery stranger. It was only after I’d finished my last whisky and said my goodbyes that night that I understood: Leonard had bothered with me precisely because he knew I was jittery, because he understood that I was a stranger in this room thick with friends and colleagues, because he wanted to make me feel at ease and encourage me to abandon my attempts at impressing him and instead speak freely and enjoy the evening. Of his many and considerable talents, this gift for healing was, perhaps, his finest, and in the days and weeks and months that followed our meeting I found myself emulating him, opening my heart and inviting others to unburden theirs.
It’s a skill I’ll need more than ever now that Leonard has left us for prior engagements in more elevated realms. I’m so very fortunate to have known him, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever be done singing his praises or trying to decipher the majestic and meaningful mysteries he’s left behind for us weary souls to ponder. This is not a eulogy, then, and no obituary could ever contain the multitudes of his spirit. This is an invitation, more pressing than ever, to do unto others as Leonard Cohen has done unto us and find an appetite for kindness that is only sated when everyone around us is feeling their best.
This, maybe, is what he had in mind when he sang that every heart to love will come but like a refugee, or that love was the only engine of survival. This is the distillation of his life’s work, his manual for living with defeat: we have only each other. Whatever light we bring to this world, whatever strength we find in the face of so much fragility and fear, we do only because we aren’t alone, only because we look out for each other, only because we are kind. This is our one path to redemption, our cold and broken Hallelujah that is sweeter and more true than any other song we know.
I had written to Leonard just last week to tell him I was running the New York City marathon and that, jauntier tunes be damned, I intended to listen to his most recent masterpiece, You Want It Darker, as I huffed my way through the five boroughs. For a short run you could pick whatever pop confection you’d like, I reasoned, but a long and improbable ordeal called for the prophet Cohen. A few hours later, Leonard wrote back with some kind words, urging me, as ever, to take care. He signed his email with the traditional blessing we recite every time we finish reading one of the books of the Torah: Chazak, Chazak, Ve’Nitchazek—be strong, be strong, and may we all be strengthened. Amen to that, Reb Eliezer, and farewell, my dear friend. We are truly fortunate to have basked in your warmth, and may we all spend a lifetime proving ourselves worthy students of your wisdom and your grace.