Singing and Praying about Enemies

“Ooh sha sha, we’ve got to live together,” voices used to tell me, from under my pillow at night. “What the world needs now is love … love between my brothers and my sisters …everybody get together, smile on your brother.” They promised “change is gonna come” and an “answer blowin’ in the wind,” later asking: “What’s going on? …. War, what is it good for? (Good God, y’all) … Why can’t we be friends?”

Daily messages from my transistor and from people around me were very far removed from the language of “enemies” and “wicked” in the Book of Psalms.

I did not grow up among Bible readers or folks who relied on psalms for comfort or instruction. As I became a Bible reader and a Psalms reciter as an adult, I’ve struggled to reconcile all those years of “love everybody right now!” with some of the darker images in sacred text and prayer.

Once, a long while back, R’ Joel Alter launched a Jewish Study Center class I attended by saying that some people find it unhelpful to focus on enemies but that, for the purposes of that class (on the Book of Deuteronomy), we would not debate the topic: “Don’t tell me we don’t have enemies.” I don’t think I’d said anything myself about my problems with the concept of enemies in sacred text, but Joel’s comment definitely spoke right to me, and started to shift my perspective.

Nevertheless, I remain anxious about psalms that say things like, “a host encamps against me” (Ps. 27:4) or “let God’s enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68:2) or that speak of “the wicked,” rather than wickedness. (Beruria, who taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, to pray for an end to “sins” rather than “sinners,” is my hero!) After all: Who gets to declare someone wicked or enemy of God?

I do love some psalms and find them deeply moving. I enjoy studying psalms. I joyfully, or mournfully, as the occasion demands, add my voice when psalms are part of the liturgy. I recite psalms when someone is ill or in dire straits. Still, though, when the world around me seems especially threatening, I often prefer to lean on Bill Withers or let Sly and the Family Stone carry me away.

photo: Joe Haupt (image description, full credit below)

Recently, however, I’ve had my perspective shifted again by the psalm medleys of Adam Gottlieb and OneLove. In one recent example (“Duppy Medley, with Psalm 27, below), his translation and the musical context prepare me for lines like, “when armies come at me, my heart will hold.” I could try to explain why I think this works for me. Instead, I’ll just share the video and ask how this lands for you this Elul.

This link allows Spotify users to pre-save Psalm 1 Medley, which includes a fantastic minor key “Hammer Song.” No cost, just need a Spotify account.

Here is the Patreon page for Adam Gottlieb & OneLove. Becoming a patron gives access to the Psalm 1 Medley before the September 2 release date and lots of other content.


And, here, for some different forms of uplift:

Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” brought to you by Turnaround Arts (school groups around the country);

Bill Withers offering his own “Lean on Me” with audience participation; and

Playing for Change’s Song Around the World version of “Lean on Me.”


NOTES

“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone 1968. “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Jackie DeShannon 1965. “The Hammer Song,” Martha and the Vandellas 1963 (Seeger and Hayes, 1949). “Get Together,” Youngbloods 1968. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke 1964. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan 1962. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye 1970. “War,” Edwin Starr, 1970. “Why can’t we be friends,” War 1975.

Rabbi Joel Alter was then a relatively recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a regular teacher for DC’s cross-community Jewish Study Center after his day job in formal Jewish education. He is now a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee. Tagging him here with thanks and greetings.

BACK

There were once some highwaymen [or: hooligans] the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written (Ps. 104:35): Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? It is written hatta’im! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. — Soncino translation, Babylonian Berakhot 10a. For more on this story, see also this PDF from a psalms study class a few years back.


RETURN

Image description: plastic rectangular transistor radio from the 1950s. Single dial and volume control. Photo: Joe Haupt via Wikimedia. License Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons 2.0. Official name: “Vintage General Electric 5-Transistor Radio, Model 677 (Red), GE’s First Commercially Produced Transistor Radio, Made in the USA, Circa 1955.”

Video description: Musicians performing live in a small, possibly home-based (decidedly not fancy) studio. Guitarist/vocalist on one side; drummer, guitarist, and additional percussionist on the other side.

“Lean on Me” Day

Please swallow your pride
if I have things you need to borrow
for no one can fill
those of your needs
that you won’t let show
— Bill Withers, “Lean on Me,” 1972
(AZ Lyrics)

Many of us have loved the song, “Lean on Me,” for a long, long time. And, as it happens, July 8 is the anniversary of the single hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. So, here are some thoughts about the song, which has been on my mind a lot recently, particularly the line above about letting needs show.

Things You Need to Borrow

How often is a failure to communicate needs at the heart of a serious problem, between friends, in a couple, or in a larger group? And yet, how regularly do people hope for someone(s) who will know their needs without them having to ask?

Withers has said many times — to the Soul Train crowd in 1974, to NPR in 2007, and often in between — that the song is meant to be about friendship. And one of its great strengths is the powerful sense of mutuality: Lean on me now, because I’ll need to lean on you later. But how does that work, in real life, especially when needs go unexpressed?

There are a lot of Jewish teachings around friendship and community. For example, just a few lines from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Ancestors]:

  • Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious. (1:6)
  • If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when? (1:14)
  • …Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place…. (2:4)
  • The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own… (2:10)
  • Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him; do not question him at the time of his vow; and do not seek to see him at the time of his humiliation. (4:18)

These teachings suggest that we should know a great deal about others: “the place” of our fellows as well as our friends’ anger, grief, vows, humiliations, and honor. We are asked here to anticipate, or act to obviate, lots of emotional needs, while other parts of the tradition speak more to meeting our fellows’ physical needs. In this way, Pirkei Avot seems to be asking us to make sure that there’s plenty for everyone “to borrow,” without vulnerable people necessarily having to put needs on display.

Still, the “Lean on Me” advice to swallow pride and speak up remains important, if for no other reason than to keep our friends from failing in their duties.

A Shift of Understanding

The mutuality and inter-connectedness of the whole “Lean on Me” concept is brought home by a slight change to one line, in Playing for Change’s 2015 “Song Around the World” version. Withers sang, “I just might have a problem that you’ll understand” (I’ll lean on you). But Playing for Change has it, instead: “You just might have a problem that you don’t understand” (You can lean on me). And their video, with its mixing of performances from so many people, generations, and locales around the world seems to emphasize that people in any one situation might have problems that could benefit from a wider perspective.

Playing for Change’s “Songs Around the World” give physical embodiment to the idea that we all lean on each other…to make music and for so many other things. [Descriptions follow embedded video below].

The original —

The above is video from NBC’s “The Midnight Special” (March 1974).
Description: Most of the video shows Withers at the piano in front of a studio audience, some close ups of him, some panning of audience; near the close of the video is a still of the album cover from the 1972 “Still Bill,” which included this song.

And Playing for Change —

The above video is one in a series of “Songs Around the World” staged by the non-profit Playing for Change.
Description:
The opening guitar chords are performed by Renard Poche of New Orleans, followed by Robert Lutti in Livorno Italy. Niki La Rosa, of Rome Italy, begins the lyrics. Grandpa Elliott, a New Orleans street musician, is heard singing the chorus, while we see: drumming on a beach in Chennai, India; a group of students in Kigali, Rawanda; and young dancers in Kirina, Mali. Elliott then appears briefly.

The “things you have to borrow” verse is sung by Clarence Bekker, Suriname native performing in Amsterdam. Bekker’s voice continues while we see Poche again and then Keiko Komaki of Kagoshima Japan is seen playing keyboard. Musicians and vocal artists in Chicago, Melbourne, Los Angeles and other locations join the mix. Titi Tsira, from Guguletha, South Africa, sings the “right up the road” verse. [More details as time permits, but hope this gives an idea of the visuals.]

Call and Response

Thanks to Bill Withers and so many others for helping us all believe there is someone to help carry a difficult load or just plain carry on while reminding us all that we need to be that someone as well:

Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

If there is a load
You have to bear
That you can’t carry,
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load
If you just call me.
— Bill Withers, 1972 (from AZ Lyrics

“…I can be wrong”

sometimes I’m right, but I can be wrong

…we got to live together

— Sly and the Family Stone

Everyday People

Two messages from Playing for Change “Songs Around the World” seem in order. If you don’t know this organization, learn and support them — or at least give them a listen….

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

— Bill Withers

Lean on Me