“The More Mysterious Life”: Jewish High Holiday liturgy, Leonard Cohen songs, and Geraldine Brooks’ new novel

As summer turns to fall, the season rolls into a celebration of Jewish holidays, one stacked upon another. This week is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and it begins a ten day period known as the days of repentance. A traditional prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef, said during both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, acknowledges the uncertainty of life and the near certainty that bad things will happen to us and those we love. In part, the prayer/poem reads:

Who will live and who will die?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by sword and who by beast?

Who by hunger and who by thirst?

Who by earthquake and who by drowning?

Leonard Cohen (wikimedia)

Leonard Cohen (wikimedia)

And in that vein, Leonard Cohen used this prayer as the basis for his song “Who By Fire,” the first verse of which is,

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

Who in your merry merry month of May

Who by very slow decay

And who shall I say is calling?

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intended as a time where people may, through true repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness, lessen the severity of God’s decree for them in the coming year.

In Cohen’s songs, the narrator almost sounds omniscient, knowing the outcome of the story they’re telling, whether the narrators are the subjects themselves or not. In Geraldine Brooks’ new novel (more on it in a moment), we are omniscient readers, watching the characters flail, struggle, or triumph within the vacuum of their own understanding.

"The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Marc Chagall

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall

Another of Leonard Cohen’s songs is always in the forefront of my mine at this time, “The Story of Isaac.” The section of the Torah read during the second day of Rosh Hashanah is about the binding of Isaac, the occasion when Avraham is directed by God to sacrifice his son, seemingly in order to test Avraham’s faith and devotion to God. Muslims read this same story as a directive to sacrifice his older son, Ishmael.

He said, “I’ve had a vision

And you know I’m strong and holy.

I must do as I’ve been told.”

So he started up the mountain,

I was running, he was walking,

And his axe was made of gold.

Then there’s a third Leonard Cohen song, not particularly related to these fall holidays, but also based on a story in the Jewish liturgy, that of King David in Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Specifically, the song hinges on what is arguably the most pivotal decision David makes in his adult life, and one from which all strife and turmoil to subsequently impact his family stems. As Cohen writes:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you. 

"Bathsheba at Her Bath" by Rembrandt

“Bathsheba at Her Bath” by Rembrandt

David’s desire for Batsheva, a married woman, rains down havoc on his family for two generations.

Batsheva becomes pregnant by David, and a series of events make it impossible to pass the baby off as that of Batsheva’s husband. So David orders his army general to send the husband, a soldier named Uriah, to the front lines where he will surely be killed, and he is. Ostensibly as punishment for this act, David and Batsheva’s child dies several days after his birth. Later, their son Solomon will become king after David.

I recently finished reading Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, The Secret Chord, the title of which comes from the first line in Cohen’s “Hallelujah”:

I heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord.

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

The book tells the story of David as historical fiction, from the perspective of David’s prophet Natan. It begins a number of years into David’s reign. Natan is sent to seek out David’s mother, oldest brother, and first wife, Michal. Not fully conscious of the prophesies he receives, Natan must have them explained to him later. At one point, he is shown visions of all that is to befall David’s children as they reach adulthood: the crimes against one another, the deaths, and the betrayals, but he is physically prevented from speaking of these visions to David or anyone. Natan experiences these events in his mind’s eye as if they were actually transpiring. He feels the pain of those impacted  as his own. As a prophet, Natan has an unusual vantage point: to some degree, he knows the plots of the lives of those around him. David A.M. Wilensky, assistant editor of J, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, writes in an article about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Each of us is living in a story whose plot we do not know.”

King David, Mount Zion (cantabgold.net)

King David, Mount Zion (cantabgold.net)

For David, in the liturgy and in Brooks’ novel, this is both his tragedy and blessing. We know David’s story, as Natan does, but how could David possibly live and build a kingdom if he had the knowledge of the violent, destructive, almost unspeakable acts his children will wreak on one another? But if David knew, could he act differently in order to prevent, or reverse, some of these disasters? These questions lead to ones of free will that are philosophically and theologically intriguing, although not really the point of Brooks’ story, and not discussed in it. And for the rest of us, would we go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and sing the Unetaneh Tokef, asking which of us might survive the coming year, or thrive in it, if we already knew the answers? It is of course the not knowing which makes living in the balance possible.


What other songs do you know that have inspired books?

6 thoughts on ““The More Mysterious Life”: Jewish High Holiday liturgy, Leonard Cohen songs, and Geraldine Brooks’ new novel

  1. Wow—such a cool post—I LOVE Cohen’s Hallelujah, especially K.D. Lang’s version—the music of it. Knowing that Brooks took her title from the first line is a great enticement for reading her book. I’ve never fully understood the lyrics—so I read your post with great interest. If you tell me she explains the kitchen chair line in the song, I’ll read it for sure!

  2. I’m a couple of weeks behind on my reading and just seeing this. I appreciate the enlightenment on Jewish High holy days. King David is certainly an inspiration for many novels. I am currently reading The Queenmaker by India Edghill, and it is very interesting. Brooks’ novel will be a good followup. Will have to check out the Leonard Cohen songs too.

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