This is not a sermon about politics, per se. It is not a sermon about personalities and who gets chosen for Cabinet positions and who doesn't. We can have that conversation and those disagreements at the oneg or in a classroom style setting, or perhaps, even somewhere else, entirely, because right now, such conversations are truly nothing more than a zero sum game.
A temple is intended to be an oasis of non-partisanship. A temple is intended to be a place of sanctuary, shelter and comfort, for people of different backgrounds and different viewpoints. I have my views, just like everyone else in this room. And I have been busy expressing those views, as have you, in a variety of ways. Such practices, as Dr. Gary Zola, Executive Director of the American Jewish Archives reminded us that week, are both deeply American and deeply Jewish. But if we don't have a place to return to, a place where we can re-center ourselves, where we can assess the values that we wish to see in our country and in our lives, if we don't pause for Shabbat to step back from the tenuousness and tentativeness that we see pervading our community and our nation, I fear that we will do nothing but tear ourselves and tear our country apart.
In the wake of last week's election, and Leonard Cohen's death, there are perhaps no more apt words than that of "Hallelujah." The simple translation of the Hebrew word "Hallelujah" means, "Praise God." But a closer reading of Cohen's lyrics reveal a musical creation that goes far beyond a simple, monolithic praise of a Higher Being.
Speaking in a July 2011 service at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the Reverend Dr. R.M.A. "Sandy" Scott delivered a sermon about Cohen's "Hallelujah," and the song's reference in its opening stanzas about the life and actions of King David. Scott commented:
The story of David and Bathsheba is about the abuse of power in the name of lust, which leads to murder, intrigue and brokenness...David had been a brave and gifted leader, but that he now 'began to believe his own propaganda -- he did what critics predicted, he began to take what he wanted'...The great King David becomes no more than a baffled king when he starts to live for himself...But even after the drama, the grasping, conniving, sinful King David is still Israel's greatest poet, warrior and hope...There is so much brokenness in David's life, only God can redeem and reconcile this complicated personality. That is why the baffled and wounded David lifts up to God a painful hallelujah.
Baffled. Wounded. A painful hallelujah. Using the life and the character flaws of the revered King David, Cohen drives us into a deeper place, a place of our own humanness, our own fallibility, our individual brokenness, and the brokenness of the world in which we live. Alan Light writes in his 2012 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah':
Like our forefathers, and the Bible heroes who formed the foundation of Western ethics and principles, we will be hurt, tested, and challenged. Love will break our hearts, music will offer solace that we may or may not hear, we will be faced with joy and with pain. But Cohen is telling us, without resorting to sentimentality, not to surrender to despair or nihilism. Critics may have fixated on the gloom and doom of his lyrics, but this is his offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.
Cohen himself is quoted in Light's book, an excerpt of which was included in a 2012 edition of Rolling Stone magazine. And perhaps he says it best of all:
This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled...but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by 'Hallelujah.' That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, 'Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.'…The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all...That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.
Life has gone on after November 8, 2016 and it will continue to go on, with or without us. But the only thing that leaves us powerless against is the passage of time. We are empowered in every other regard, even amidst seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, even amidst seemingly impossible situations. No one is asking us to praise God for the Divided States of America in which we presently live. But Cohen's lyrics appear to be reminding us that at some stage, in order to live more comfortably, we have to embrace the reality that is confounding many of us. Mind you, this is a reality embraced by over 50 million Americans, a reality embraced by 46.5% of the American population who didn't even vote in the recent election.
But we have to pause to name our feelings. Allow me to speak personally for a brief moment. Next month will mark eleven years since the death of my mother. I was in my final year of rabbinical school, hitting a point of writer's block with my rabbinical thesis, when one of my mentors, a retired rabbi named Stephen Arnold, called me and asked, "What's really going on? This isn't about your thesis, is it?" We spoke about my mother's terminal illness and about how it was affecting me. He taught me that when we pause, we take a step back, and we begin by giving name and voice to the emotions that we are feeling, we find ourselves more prepared to move on. We can't change our brokenness, but we can name it, and then we can address it.
So what's really breaking many of us right now? There is a lot of stress in our congregation, our community and our world. This is supposed to be one of the places where we find strength, strength from being together, strength from organizing collective efforts for positive and lasting change together. Some of us are broken by a political loss, a hope invested in another candidate. Some of us are grieving anticipatorily over what may come in the future. Some of us are hurting because we have been eyewitnesses to horrors throughout history and we fear that these events will play themselves out again on American soil. Some of us are hurting because we don't want to live in a world where statements of hatred, bigotry, and vitriol fill our airwaves. Some of us are pained and shocked that half the country that we think we cherish thinks and acts very differently to ourselves.
But it is Cohen's words in life, and now in death, as Alan Light so beautifully expressed that "Hallelujah" comes as an "offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world." First we name the emotion, and then with hope and perseverance we move forward. Some of us will gather on Wednesday, November 30 at 7 pm to discuss social action and advocacy efforts around which we can organize as a congregation. I have reached out to three different members of the Muslim community and would invite you to consider ways that our congregation can continue our dialogue and efforts at relationship building. Our list of efforts in which we will and we must be engaged will only continue to grow. But we can't lose sight of the place that all of us need, a place to come back to, with nothing on our tongue, but the holy or the broken Hallelujah.
 The ellipsis here is: (and you say, 'Look, I don't understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!').