“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

Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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Rivers of His Hands

“The rivers of his hands [נהרות ידיו] poured into his good deeds,” reads the Yehuda Amichai poem “My Father.” The Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah discussed this poem on Shabbat, and I later recalled some background which seems related.

Rabbi Meir says in Pirkei Avot:

Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things…and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop [וּכְנָהָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ פוֹסֵק]…
— Pirkei Avot 6:1, from Sefaria

In addition, the biblical concept of “נָהָר — nahar” provides further relevant background.

A River Goes Out

River images are pretty common in biblical text. The word “נָהָר — nahar” is used 120 times in the Hebrew bible, with 98 uses translated as “river,” according to this concordance . (The word is also rendered “flood” or “floods” or “streams.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance is widely available on the web and very handy; here’s more about this Christian resource.) But the first “nahar” in particular seems related to both the verse from Avot and Amichai’s poem.

“A river comes forth from Eden to water the garden.”
V’nahar yotzei me’eden lehashkot et hagan
וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן
— Genesis 2:10

Noting that the river “yotzei [goes out, comes forth]” from Eden, a contemporary teacher writes:

How ironic. Wouldn’t the river be more likely to water the Garden if it flowed INTO the Garden? The deepest answer is that Torah is compared to lifegiving waters. The more one gives Torah over to others the more watering comes back in return. The more one teaches, the more one learns. The more we give of ourselves to others, the more we get back in return.
blog of Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Amichai’s poem, “My Father,” says nothing about Torah. But the images he shares seem consistent with — and I’d argue, built on — biblical and rabbinic ideas of rivers sustained by their “going out.”

Wise Traits

Ancient Jewish thought recognized seven traits of a wise person:

A sage

  1. does not speak before one who is wiser* than he;
  2. does not interrupt the words of his fellow;
  3. does not answer impetuously;
  4. asks relevant questions and gives appropriate answers;
  5. deals with first things first, and last things last;
  6. about something he has not heard he says, “I have not heard”;**
  7. acknowledges the truth.

Pirkei Avot [Verses, or Ethics, of the Fathers] 5:9
This translation is borrowed from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur

This means, Rabbi Adam Scheier said in an essay a few years back:

In other words, a wise person is not only defined by acquired knowledge. A wise person is one with whom it is easy to have a productive conversation; a wise person is thoughtful, responds on topic, is sufficiently open-minded to entertain new ideas; a wise person might even consider the possibility that he or she is wrong.

NOTES

*Many translations say “older and wiser” — Hebrew is “מי שגדל ממנו בחכמה” — with some adding that the “superior one” should speak first.
**Another translation: “admit their ignorance.”

NaBloPoMo NOTE: “A Song Every Day” signed up for National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to daily posting for the month of November. Circumstances intervened on some dates. This post is hereby declared, by way of catching up, the official post of November 5.
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