What We’re Listening To: Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”


We’re currently in the “Days of Awe,” when according to Jewish belief, G-d determines our fate for the coming year. We pray to be inscribed for a good year, yet acknowledge in the liturgy that some will not make the list and it is G-d who will decide the manner and time at which one departs this earth. Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of this liturgy has become an enduring favorite for many of his fans — and probably many more only know Cohen through this song (and maybe Hallelujah since it has now been done and overdone).

Cohen’s Who By Fire irresistibly comes into my head when my mind wanders in synagogue not just because it updates (and romanticizes) the modes of modern death. It resonates because it gets the existential riddle that taunts me during the High Holy Days. I have a hard time believing in a literal G-d who is making a list and checking it twice — at the same time, what if any sense can be made of the random manner through which death finds us? What makes the Cohen song work with Yom Kippur rather than as a critique of it, is that it moves me into a place of acceptance that whether or not there’s an active deity deciding these things, it certainly isn’t up to me. Both for myself and those I love, “Who by fire?”  is a destiny over which we have no controlling vote. The liturgy concludes by reminding us that prayer, repentance and acts of loving-kindness can (but perhaps cannot?)  change our destiny. Leonard just asks, “Who may I say is calling?” Either way, I am reminded that my life is finite, and that the responsibility for infusing that life with meaning rests with me.

3 Responses

  1. I’m really not sure how one could cite other versions of Hallelujah and not have Jeff Buckley’s be first. Seriously.

    Otherwise, I really like this. Though, I’m interested in the two options for the song you present: “working with” vs “critique.” I’m not sure I see the exploration as that dichotomous, that either/or. Too much middle ground and fluidity, no?

  2. Well, one might note that righteous giving, prayer and repentence
    are said to ameliorate (but not necessarily avert/change) the harsh decree…. perhaps only making it easier to accept??

  3. And — one should note that the Hebrew prayer is not only a list of ways one might die or suffer, but also, balanced throughout, of ways in which some will live and prosper… What does it mean that songs and comments only recall the darker possibilities?

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