“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

Babylon: Babel’s (Distant) Background

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 3.1

The Hebrew “Bavel” is translated into English as “Babel” in Genesis and as “Babylon” when it appears elsewhere in the Tanakh. Bavel as Babel shows up in a total of two verses in the entire Torah text: Gen 10:10, Nimrod’s legacy — “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar,” and Gen 11:9, the close of what is usually called “The Tower of Babel” story. Bavel, now Babylon, is not mentioned again until 2 Kings 17:30, during the exile of the northern kingdoms.

After that, the Concordance (Even-Shoshan 1998) lists 281 additional appearances Bavel in the prophets and two in Psalm 137. Down the road, we’ll explore Babylon references in the later Tanakh. For now, let’s return to the Genesis.

Babel and Babylon

Jewish commentary on Gen 11:1-9 often treats the Bavel of Genesis as a place apart from history and geography. The focus is on the Babel tale’s placement in the Torah: after the Flood — when Noah’s descendants were told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1) — and before Terah, Abraham, Sarah, and Lot leave Ur (Gen 11:31). Babylon is far in the background, often unremarked.

For example, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, of Yeshivat Maharat, recently shared a lovely, powerful dvar torah for the Torah portion Noach (Gen 6:9-11:32):

And God models how to exist in a world of diversity. In verse 7, when God goes down to mete out their punishment, God says: “Come let US go down.”

Rashi, addressing the question of who God is talking to, suggests that God “took counsel with the Angels, with his judicial court.” Surely God knows how to mete out judgment and punishment, as he has already done unilaterally in the Torah without discussing it with the Angels? Perhaps, God turns to them to asses their thoughts on the sin of the people, to hear their opinion, to debate the pros and cons of scattering the people all over the world. By addressing the Angels, God models how to collaborate with others. Diverse ideas, when debated in a respectful manner, can lead to growth, greater productivity, and ultimately harmony.

…The challenge with diversity is to reject the tendency toward segregating, and running away from conflict. For out of conflict, when we are willing to confront one another with healthy debate, tolerance is born…
— Hurwitz, ָ”Harmony, not Conformity

Hurwitz’s dvar torah is about Babel, not Babylon. She mentions no historical city or empire. Plenty of homelies, in- and outside the Orthodox world, identify Babel with Babylon and incorporate views of the latter; idol-worship, smugness of place, and failure to follow God’s commandments are common themes linking Babel and Babylon. However large a role Babylon plays in any given dvar torah, the overarching point is to help us better understand the Torah, ourselves, and our obligations as Jews — not to tease out insights on life in ancient Babylon.

Still, Jewish bible study has long examined the relationship of the historical, geographical Babylon to the Babel of Genesis 11. For thousands of years, that discussion has returned again and again to concepts of unity and difference, centralizing and dispersing. And for thousand of years, intentionally or not, those discussions have incorporated political ideas about these themes.

Because Babylon, in its many guises, is never far away from Jewish consciousness. Remember: We’ve already found Babylon in the primordial stuff of Creation and in the formation of the first earthling….

It’s Complicated

Erin Runions analyses Babylon as a complex, often contradictory, theme in U.S. culture and politics. From a non-Jewish academic perspective, she writes about the Tower:

The Tower of Babel appears in political and religious discourse when people want to think about what holds the United States together in the face of its racial and cultural diversity. Because the Babelian creation of diverse languages is typically read as both God’s will and at the same time a punishment, the story lends itself well to representing a range of attitudes about difference. A confusing ambivalence about unity and about too much diversity emerges. Via the Babel story, Babylon is sometimes used to promote tolerance toward sexual and ethnic difference, insofar as U.S. Americans see themselves as benevolent toward difference. At other times it is used to stigmatize and attack difference as embodying a problematic unity without moral distinctions.
The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (NY: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 22-23

Runions calls Babylon “a surprisingly multivalent symbol” in U.S. culture and politics and then dedicates 300 pages to unpacking its complexities. Much of The Babylon Complex is outside the scope of this blog’s project. But Runions’s work illuminates how the surrounding culture understands and uses the concept of Babylon — and those insights are crucial, however tangential.

We’ll explore The Babylon Complex further another day. For the moment, let’s return to Rabba Hurwitz’s image of God modeling “how to collaborate with others” and add a postscript.

Different Folks

This past week, Playing for Change re-shared this video — one of my favorites among an enormous menu of great, community-building music. Sly Stewart’s great lines —

You love me
you hate me
You know me and then
Still can’t figure out the bag I’m in

seem so appropriate to this stage of #ExploringBabylon and Hurwitz’s charge to us.

Plus: Who doesn’t need hundreds of children singing and dancing to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”?!

More here for those interested, about TurnAround Arts and Playing for Change.

“…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

Prayers, Advocacy, and #RippleEffect

Continuing the discussion, at “If a corpse be found…”, about the need for new approaches to meeting our communal responsibilities.

Some possible responses to the trauma and tragedy of multiple murders, particularly in Washington, DC —

Prayer

Residents in some of the most affected neighborhoods of the District are asking for prayers, calling on everyone in and around the city to #Pray4DC, as one united town. If you know others who engage in intercessory prayer, please pass along this prayer concern. And, however you approach such requests yourself, please keep the need for “one DC” in mind.

Also, if you know members or clergy in other congregations who might be willing to prayerfully acknowledge DC’s losses to homicide — as Temple Micah has begun to do — please ask them to sign up for #SayThisName.

Learn and Advocate

Learn a little about child trauma and how it affects learning and then advocate for trauma-sensitive schools – particularly in Washington, DC. The District also needs trauma-response units to help young people on the scene cope with the violence they too often face.

You will find more background and links to several pertinent resources in this recent feature report from the Education Town Hall.)

For DC residents, please note particularly, that the DC Council held a roundtable on this topic in June and should be poised to act.

Playing for Change

This one involves the Grateful Dead — some Temple Micah (DC) people know I hate to let a summer pass without somehow bringing in the Dead. And those who follow such things know this summer is the Dead’s 50th anniversary….

Ripple Effect Campaign

As we began the Standing Prayer, I mentioned the idea of ripples of pain moving outward from a bomb or a bullet and how kindness and prayer can also have a ripple effect. (See “Prayer in the Midst of Bullets and Bombs“)

The #RippleEffect Campaign — named for the Grateful Dead son, “Ripple” — simply involves engaging in acts of kindness or telling about a how an act of kindness affected you… and then encouraging others to do so as well, creating a kindness ripple.

Part of the effort involves social media, for those interested. But it’s certainly not required for the spreading of kindness, or for doing so with the intention of helping to heal all that is broken in DC and beyond.

Playing for Change Day

2015-bnr-PFC_squareA second goal of the Ripple Effect Campaign is to raise awareness and funds for a project called “Playing for Change” that teaches music and dance to young people around the world, including in the U.S. Playing for Change (PFC) helps youth use music for everything from improving education to resolving conflicts, preserving cultural heritage, and building community, locally, and connections worldwide.

PFC Day — with activities in 61 countries last year — is an annual effort, scheduled this year during the Days of Awe.

Organizers say

This day of music, peace, and change keeps instruments, music instruction, and inspiration flowing to children around the world, … and contributes to positive vibration that connects and inspires us all.

Justice, Justice you shall pursue

The related dvar Torah, “If a corpse be found…”, continues the discussion of ripples — ones of pain, outward from bullets and bombs, and ones of healing.

Is anyone else interested in pursuing a Playing for Change activity in DC and/or the Jewish world?