26 February 2021

The rain falls down on
‘Last Year’s Man’: new
thoughts after Purim

‘Last Year’s Man’ is the second track on Leonard Cohen’s album, ‘Songs of Love and Hate,’ released 50 years ago in 1971

Patrick Comerford

Leonard Cohen released his third studio album, Songs of Love and Hate, 50 years ago on 19 March 1971. The album was recorded the previous September, and all eight songs are written by Cohen: Avalanche, Last Year’s Man, Dress Rehearsal Rag, Diamonds in the Mine, Love Calls You by Your Name, Famous Blue Raincoat, Sing Another Song, Boys, and Joan of Arc. There is a bonus track on the 2007 remastered edition: Dress Rehearsal Rag.

I had already become an avid reader of Leonard Cohen’s poems, and I listened to this album throughout the summer of 1971. I was in my late teens, and it was a summer that became nothing less than life-changing in terms of my spiritual growth and maturity.

Today has been the feast of Purim, a day recalling and celebrating how Esther and her uncle Mordecai overturned the genocidal scheming of the evil Haman and his plot to annihilate the Jews of Persia. It is a true story of Love and Hate.

In my Friday evening reflections this evening, I find myself listening once again to the album Songs of Love and Hate, especially the second track, ‘Last Year’s Man,’ with its images of ‘a lady’ with a secret identity who ‘was playing with her soldiers in the dark’ – perhaps an image of Esther; of Bethlehem being ensnared in the evil plots of Babylon – perhaps an image of the dreadful fate Haman had plotted; and of the murderous schemes of Cain – who represents not only Haman but all who would want to plot the extermination of the people.

This song has remained on the periphery of Cohen’s classic songs, and is often interpreted as a song about an obsessive love that Cohen has experienced, still seeking this unrequited love.

But the song is filled with Biblical images, and like many of Cohen’s songs it can has its parallels with the songs of many of the Biblical prophets, who see God as faithful to people, keeps on loving them, and yearns for their return, and the people as a wayward, unfaithful spouse or lover.

‘Last Year’s Man’ is no-one less than God, who is the great architect, the Creator, who is dismissed too easily in today’s, modern culture as no longer relevant or credible.

In our wars, violence and lifestyles today, we frustrate God’s plans, we spoil and sully his plans for humanity, and we dismiss him as ‘last year’s man.’

We make new gods of power, wealth and war, we invent our own new superstitions. But God still has plans and hopes for his wayward people, and waits like a faithful husband for the lover who has turned away to return.

There is an echo of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah and other prophets in the promise:

And we read from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin
that the wilderness is gathering
all its children back again.

The relevant passages include Isaiah 64 and 65, Jeremiah 31, Hosea 1 and 2, and Micah 7.

At first hearing, there may be a Jewish reference in the description of ‘a Jew’s harp on the table.’ But a Jew’s harp is not Jewish at all, and we have to search deeper in this song to draw water from the well of Jewish mysticism in which Cohen so often found refreshment.

In Jewish mysticism, it is God the Creator who breaks through the cracks – whether they are in skylights or in unmended drums – to pour his light into the world. ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ as Leonard Cohen sings his song ‘Anthem’ (The Future, 1992).

In their writings, both Leonard Cohen and the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have introduced me to the writings of the 16th century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), whose teachings are known as Lurianic Kabbalah.

According to Isaac Luria, God created vessels into which he poured his holy light. These vessels were not strong enough to contain such a powerful force and they shattered. The sparks of divine light were carried down to earth along with the broken shards.

The Kabbalah of Rav Yitzhak Luria had a notably strong effect on Cohen, and his key ideas are reflected in that line, ‘There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.’

This divine brokenness is a key to many of Cohen’s poems and songs, according to his rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who says Lurianic Kabbalah gives voice to the impossible brokenness of the human condition. ‘The pain of the Divine breakage permeates reality. We inherit it; it inhabits us. We can deny it. Or we can study and teach it, write it and sing its mournful songs.’

Cohen hints in his songs that redemption – the tikkun olam that will repair the broken world – remains possible.

He returns to the Judaism of his childhood and youth, wraps the tefillin around his upper arm, and finds new insights in the Torah: ‘And we read from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin.’

Cohen regularly ended his concerts with the Priestly Blessing (ברכת כהנים; birkat Cohanim). It is also known in rabbinic literature as raising the hands or rising to the platform because the blessing is given from a raised rostrum.

The Jewish Sages stressed that although the Cohanim or priests pronounce the blessing, it is not them or the ceremonial practice of raising their hands that results in the blessing, but rather it is God’s desire that his blessing should be symbolised by the hands of the Cohanim.

Lord Sacks says the Torah explicitly says that though the Cohanim say the words, it is God who sends the blessing: ‘When the Cohanim bless the people, they are not doing anything in and of themselves. Instead, they are acting as channels through which God’s blessing flows into the world and into our lives.’

In many communities, it is customary for men in the congregation to spread their tallitot or prayer shawls over their own heads during the blessing and not look at the Cohanim. If a man has children, they come under his tallit to be blessed.

A tradition among Ashkenazim says that during this blessing, the Shekhinah becomes present where the Cohanim have their hands in the shin gesture, so that gazing there would be harmful.

An understanding of how the God’s light is thought to be present through the outstretched fingers of the Cohanim may lie behind Leonard Cohen’s lines in ‘Anthem’:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

The light of God breaks through in the crack in the skylight, and the rains fall like a blessing on all God’s creation.

Shabbas Shalom

Last Year’s Man by Leonard Cohen:

The rain falls down on last year’s man,
That’s a Jew’s harp on the table,
That’s a crayon in his hand.
And the corners of the blueprint are ruined since they rolled
Far past the stems of thumbtacks
That still throw shadows on the wood.
And the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend
And all the rain falls down Amen
On the works of last year’s man.

I met a lady, she was playing with her soldiers in the dark
Oh one by one she had to tell them
That her name was Joan of Arc.
I was in that army, yes I stayed a little while;
I want to thank you, Joan of Arc,
For treating me so well.

And though I wear a uniform I was not born to fight;
All these wounded boys you lie beside,
Goodnight, my friends, goodnight.

I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom,
Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
And Bethlehem inflamed us both
Like the shy one at some orgy.
And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside to see
The serpent eat its tail.

Some women wait for Jesus, and some women wait for Cain,
So I hang upon my altar
And I hoist my axe again.
And I take the one who finds me back to where it all began,
When Jesus was the honeymoon
And Cain was just the man.
And we read from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin
That the wilderness is gathering
All its children back again.

The rain falls down on last year’s man,
An hour has gone by
And he has not moved his hand.
But everything will happen if he only gives the word;
The lovers will rise up
And the mountains touch the ground.
But the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend
And all the rain falls down Amen
On the works of last year’s man.

‘Last Year's Man’ by Leonard Cohen, Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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