“O gather up the brokenness / And bring it to me now / The fragrance of those promises / You never dared to vow.” So begins one of Leonard Cohen’s most extraordinary kabbalistic songs, “Come Healing,” a poem that is prayer in its purest distillation, a prayer clothed in quintessential nakedness, an anthem that celebrates and laments the wholehearted fragmentariness of the human condition, the brokenness of the promises one never dared to vow. Why is this so? What is a promise that one does not dare to vow, and if the promise is not vowed, how can it broken? The brokenness consists precisely of not having the courage and timidity to make the vow. Even more egregious than the brokenness that results from not keeping a promise one has vowed is the brokenness of the promise that has never been vowed. The promise one does not dare to vow is the deepest lack of belief, a lack of trust in oneself and in the other, a lack of commitment in the possibility of being committed. And yet, the very promises, which are never vowed, offer a scent, a fragrance, the olfactory trace that calls forth to memory what might have been if one had the audacity to dare to vow. The trace that marks the absence of presence as the presence of absence.
“The splinters that you carry / The cross you left behind / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind.” Sometimes we carry the reminder of our pain like splinters embedded in the flesh, other times we are condemned to envision the pain as the cross we left behind, the burden of a suffering too burdensome to bear. In either case, the poet offers a prayer for a double healing, the healing of the body and the healing of the mind. Maimonides famously spoke of two perfections, the perfection of the body and the perfection of the soul, tiqqun ha-guf and tiqqun ha-nefesh, and the kabbalists similarly provided a path that leads to this double healing, a path that forces one to confront the brokenness in all of its stark reality, the brokenness of the world, the human, and the divine. Only prayer in its most destitute form, the prayer divested of prayer, can mend the heartbroken by this threefold brokenness, for through the mystery of song, the secret of prayerfulness, we detect that in every moment there is a beginning, and hence each moment is identical because distinctive. Time, as opposed to eternity, must have a point of beginning, but to begin it cannot have begun without compromising its status as the beginning that will begin. The beginning, then, never ends, but only that which ends everlastingly never ends.
“And let the heavens hear it / The penitential hymn / Come healing of the spirit / Come healing of the limb.” Long ago the poet admonished that even if the promise be broken we must keep it nonetheless. No promise can be more devotedly kept than the promise that has been betrayed by never being avowed. Healing of the spirit and healing of the limb are most acutely possible in the place where salvation seems impossible, where hope leaps forth from the depths of hopelessness. In the capriciousness of our expecting the unexpected, of waiting for what cannot arrive, lies our obdurate fidelity to a future that is both present and not present, present as not present, not present as present.
“Behold the gates of mercy / In arbitrary space / And none of us deserving / The cruelty or the grace.” Once more, the poet illumines the phenomenological quandary of prayer: Only one unworthy is empowered to pray but one unworthy has no power to pray. There is a Talmudic tradition that from the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer are closed but the gates of weeping remain open. The gates of mercy are these gates of weeping, for tears are the agency that stimulates the compassion necessary in a place of brokenness, the arbitrary space that seems capricious from the standpoint of the strict measure of the law, the place of forgiveness where guilt is transposed into innocence. Mercy, as the kabbalists teach, holds sway betwixt divine wrath and divine love, the response appropriate for the one underserving of cruelty or grace.
“O solitude of longing / Where love has been confined / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind.” The brokenness is broken in the solitude of longing where love has been confined—a curious phrase indeed. Prima facie, longing presumes the other, and yet it is engendered most fervently in seclusion. The wasteland of solitude is precisely the womb that bears the possibility of profound relationality. Not only death but desire, too, arises in what Heidegger called the determinate ring of solitude. This is reminiscent as well of Soloveitchik’s typology of the lonely man of faith, which is not to be construed as loneliness in the sense of being physically isolated from social intercourse, but rather a more intense existential loneliness, the ontic sense of being alone even in, nay especially in, the company of others. Being with the other enhances the solitude of longing whence poetic thinking ensues in the aspiration to heal body and mind. The solitude of longing where love has been confined, where that which by nature extends limitlessly is delimited, the mystery of tsimtsum in the kabbalistic tradition, the compression of the boundless light to a point circumscribed in the void emptied of that light. “O see the darkness yielding / That tore the light apart / Come healing of the reason / Come healing of the heart.” The inceptual projection is concomitantly a withdrawal, an act expressive of both constrictive judgement and expansive mercy. Attunement to this paradox can bring healing of reason and healing of the heart—only the reason of the heart can ascertain the heart of reason, the truth of love that demands both the contracting that expands and the expansion that contracts.
“O troubled dust concealing / An undivided love / The heart beneath is teaching / To the broken heart above.” Here we come to the most esoteric dimension of the poem. The invariable misfortune and turmoil of our all-too-human lot—the troubled dust that gathers in every corner of our lives—conceals an undivided love taught to the broken heart above by the heart that is below. One would expect, first, that the hierarchy would be reversed, that the heart above teaches the heart below, and second, that the heart above would not be described as broken. But, in line with one of the most penetrating insights promulgated by the kabbalists, it is indeed the divine heart that is broken and its mending depends on the action of the human heart below.
“Let the heavens falter / Let the earth proclaim / Come healing of the altar / Come healing of the name.” How does the heart below in a world rife with division teach the heart above about undivided love? Even though the heavens falter, the earth will proclaim—through its own brokenness the broken heart will find the path of healing. In the celebrated teaching of Naḥman of Bratslav, there is no heart as whole as a broken heart. In the chasm of this desolation, all that is left is the possibility of prayer, the possibility to pray for the possibility of prayer. As Cohen put it in another one of his songs, “If it be your will / That a voice be true / From this broken hill / I will sing to you / From this broken hill / All your praises they shall ring / If it be your will / To let me sing.” Our finitude is such that even the song of praise can be offered only from the broken hill, the hill ravaged by transgression, indiscretion, and duplicity, the glow of faith ensnared in the shadow of doubt, the face of truth veiled in the mask of untruth. But the possibility of possibility that prayer represents, as impossible as it might seem, has the power to heal the altar and to heal the name.
The melancholic wisdom centers about the discernment that wholeness can be restored only in the fragment, the sacrifice of the aggregate to the suffering of the part. As the final chorus attests: “O longing of the branches / To lift the little bud / O longing of the arteries / To purify the blood.” Since the light of the infinite is attired in every detail, each detail can be considered the embodiment of divinity in its entirety, each being displays the craving of the arteries that the life-giving blood that flows through them be purified. The compossible synergy of universality and particularity is expressed in the presumably inestimable refinements and rectifications of the inextensible light. There is no unicity but in the endless divisibility of the indivisible, no integration but in the indefinite disintegration of the indissoluble. And thus the song ends with the repetition of the refrain: “And let the heavens hear it / The penitential hymn / Come healing of the spirit / Come healing of the limb.”
This postface will appear in Aubrey Glazer, Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond (Academic Studies Press, 2016). Printed with permission.
Elliot R. Wolfson holds the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.