Ahavas Sholom – an Historic Landmark and Sacred Space

Newark's Last Remaining Synagogue born of the Great European Migration at the turn of the 20th Century

145 Broadway, Newark, NJ 07104
Phone: 973-485-2609 | Email: cahavassholom@optimum.net


Simon Says, November 11, 2022

Leonard Cohen wrote “The Story of Isaac” in 1969; you can hear it on YouTube:

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
And you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told. ”
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady’s mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the world.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
“Just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

I investigated the meaning of the song on the Internet because the song is cryptic.  The first stanza is straightforward; it is retelling the story of the Akedah.  The second stanza is more complicated.

“The trees they got much smaller” is allusion to the height of the mountain; the trees are smaller higher on the mountain slope.  I don’t know what, “the lake a lady’s mirror” signifies; there are no lakes near Mount Moriah.  The word, “mirror” probably means a reflection, but I don’t what know the mirror reflects.  Abraham threw bottle of wine down the mountain and it broke, and three lines probably mean Abraham and Isaac were high on the mountain.  Isaac saw an eagle or vulture.  A vulture is a carrion-eater; probably Isaac imagined seeing a vulture a sign of his impending doom.  Abraham looked behind his shoulder, probably looking for God. 

The third stanza is straightforward:  the message is, the adults should not send the children to war.  One of the interpretations of the song that I found on the Internet, was the song an anti-Viet-Nam War song.  One other interpretation of the song is about child abuse.

The fourth stanza is the most cryptic.  The first three lines in the fourth stanza mean, who is just to declare the war.  The next six lines I don’t have a clue about their meaning.  The last three lines of the stanza, especially a reference to “peacock,” the many people commented about the three last lines.  Some people say that soldiers are strutting in the uniforms.  One person said that the reference to “peacock” is to nuclear detonations.  One person from India said that the peacock is a symbol of good over evil.  (By the way, peacocks and peahens hate snakes.  Peafowls don’t abide the snakes; peafowls see a snake in their territory, they attack the snake, venomous or not, and when they are victorious, they ate the snake.)

Leonard Cohen wrote about the song: 

The Story of Isaac has fathers and sons in it and sacrifice and slaughter, and an extremely honest statement at the end.  It does say something about fathers and sons and that curious place, generally over the slaughtering block where generations meet and have their intercourse.  I think probably that I did feel [when I wrote it] that one of the reasons that we have wars was so the older men can kill off the younger ones, so there’s no competition for the women.  Also, completely remove the competition in terms of their own institutional positions.  The song doesn’t end with a plea for peace.  It doesn’t end with a plea for sanity between the generations.  It ends saying, “I’ll kill you if I can, I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.”  That’s all I can say about it.  My father died when I was nine, that’s the reason I put that one of us had to go.