The Baffled King Composing Hallelujah
Welcome to the first piece of the Series “What That Song Means”. This is a series of pieces on some of my favorite songs and what it means to me on a deeper level.
This is not to say that my interpretation is what the Artist meant when he or she wrote the song. It’s just what I felt when I listened to it. It’s just how it fits into the narrative of my life story.
Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
To begin with, I am an Orthodox Rabbi. The word Hallelujah has a strong religious meaning to me straight away because of my background, as it would anyone who is religious and uses this word often in their prayers.
It is a Hebrew word.
It means “Praise God”.
It’s a word used when all other words fail. To say it means simply “Praise God” is a fail in of itself. It’s so much more. It carries so much more than words can ever convey.
Many search for the true meaning of this word. This is the message of the song. Leonard Cohen is trying to explain the meaning to someone, but finds it difficult, because it is so much more than just a word.
And this is how the song begins.
“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
The word, song, feeling of Hallelujah can only truly be sung on a secret chord.
The best kept secret is the one that everyone knows, but doesn’t understand.
King David knew this word, he knew how to play it on a secret chord. Any musician will tell you that there is no such thing as a secret chord. And every real musician will tell that they have played that chord before. It’s something beyond the music.
This is where Hallelujah lives.
The word first appears in King David’s Psalms which are a series of one hundred and fifty compositions. He was a musician, and he found the chord that can carry the “Hallelujah”.
Leonard speaks to those who don’t care to learn about this word. He understands that not everyone is interested in knowing it.
For those who want to know, this is it — the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall the major lift. It seems simple enough, like explaining what love is. Easy to spell in words, not easy to explain what it is.
That is the baffled King. The King is baffled, when he finds this chord.
When you find the secret chord in your life you too will be baffled to know how close that chord was all along. The truth behind the chord simply appears when you are ready and there is no way to explain how.
Many things in life are like this.
This is love, passion, rapture.
You may have the instructions or the directions, but try as you might you cant quite reach your destination. Yet, after a few attempts and throwing everything you are in to finding it, suddenly you find it, and its just there.
This is life, and this is the message to the one who “doesn’t care for music”.
The next stanza is no longer about King David, but about another story. It’s about Samson and Delilah. It’s about being broken and how that dark place can also help you find the true meaning of Hallelujah.
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips, she drew the Hallelujah
Samson was a man of faith. He was a leader. He was whole and perfect. Yet, he wasn’t.
There was something missing. Samson knew abut the word Hallelujah and at the same time he didn’t, yet.
He had the map but hadn’t arrived.
Only until he was betrayed by the most beautiful, by the thing that took his heart over, did he find it.
Samson was not just betrayed by someone close to him. He was betrayed by Delilah. The one who overthrew his heart. The one for whom he sacrificed everything.
She tied him up and cut his hair. The hair that symbolized his strength.
She broke his throne. Samson was not a king. His throne symbolized his own sense of self. The one closest to him broke him down until he was left with nothing.
Only the people closest to you can do that.
In that moment he learned the meaning of Hallelujah.
Sometimes it is only in that moment. In your darkest moment, when you reach for something you never thought you could touch.
And you find it.
Now Leonard speaks to the fanatic, the one who is driven by the map. The one who needs the directions spelled out or else it’s wrong, or worse heresy.
He speaks to the listener who is appalled, and in their shock has missed it completely.
“You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
There is a rule. Don’t take the Name in vain. It’s a real rule. For the religious, one must be careful. But at the same time its the name that brings life and joy in the way you understand it.
I can’t tell you it’s okay to take the Name in vain, but when you get stuck on the rules you forget that every word is The Holy Name. When you worry about the small details you forget about the bigger picture.
Don’t get lost in the trees and forget about the forest.
Find what causes your heart to skip a beat. Find the thing that is beyond that is known and hidden. Whatever that may be, even if I would tell you its wrong, that is Hallelujah.
“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
And this is where Leonard recognizes the truth of Hallelujah.
However much you try to feel it, it can never encompass all that is the word Hallelujah.
Even if you try, you will barely scratch the surface. Even when you give your everything you will fall short.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s not a contest. It just is.
It’s a connection to the infinite. If you were able to get it, it wouldn’t be infinite.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
— Robert Browning
And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.
Because after all, there is really nothing that isn’t…
Keep singing this song. Keep feeling for it.
And whatever you find is yours. It’s your own Hallelujah.
(There are other lyrics that were sung later by Leonard Cohen and others who covered the song. These words here touched me most, but feel free to make meaning out of those words as well.)