Parashat Tetzaveh 5776
45 years ago, this month, Carole King released her now legendary album titled Tapestry. Looking over the song list, each one has become a classic in its own right, song like “I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and of course “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Of all of those tracks,”You’ve Got a Friend” I find the most profound. It’s a spiritual song, in the way it describes such a simple and strong connection that exists between two individuals. When we sing “You’ve Got a Friend,” we assure ourselves and we assure the other. It’s an assurance against loneliness. We never have to be alone. When faced with trial, we can walk through that experience knowing that we are embraced and loved by others. No matter the season, no matter the situation, “all you got to do is call, and I’ll be there.”
For King the song was born out of her friendship with James Taylor, who also recorded the song. “You’ve Got a Friend” is a response to his song, “Fire and Rain,” specifically to the line, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” King was so taken by the sadness in the lyric that she wanted to assure Taylor that he could count on her when those times for fire and rain came in. He would always have a friend in her. The song wrote itself, she would later say.
If the song is so intensely personal between these two artists, then what allows for it to endure in the popular culture? Something of the experience that Carole King captures in her music speaks to us. Her song is a salve to loneliness; it reads like a prayer. And because of that, it has endured. She continues to sing a truth to those–and for those–who experience isolation and loneliness.
In this way, Carole King continues on the tradition that can be traced back in our Jewish tradition. Both our biblical and rabbinic traditions give voice to the same message.
In the Book of Psalms, the authors articulate a spiritual hope that if they despair, they pray that they are not alone, and that God is with them, that comforting friend: “Out of the depths I call to You, Adonai! O Adonai, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” (Psalm 130:1-2), or as we recite in the 23rd Psalm, “For as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (or as I like to translate it, ‘the deepest and dark valley’), I fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff comfort me.”
The voice of the Psalmist and the voice of the contemporary singer-songwriter teach us that we should know, in our short days here on this earth, that we do not have to be alone. The Rabbis communicated this message as well through the relationship of chevruta, study partners.
A story is told about Rabbi Yochanan and his chevruta, Reish Lakish. These two sages were not only chevruta, they were also brothers-in-law. Once, they were studying in the beit midrash, as was their regular practice. They began a significant debate over a minuscule matter. The molehill morphed into a mountain. One offended the other, saying something that could not be taken back, and they ended the conversation embittered, never speaking to one another again.
Reish Lakish took ill, and died. Rabbi Yochanan’s grief was profound. Other rabbis tried to comfort him. Each scholar, more brilliant than the next, came to the beit midrash to study with him, trying to salve his grief by replacing the chevruta he had had with Reish Lakish. To each new scholar who would arrive, he would say to them, “You’re supposed to be like Reish Lakish?” Whereupon, he would undo the other Sage’s argument, showing its vapidity, and send him away. Rabbi Yochanan’s grief was so profound he could be found walking about, having torn his clothing, crying out, “Where are you Reish Lakish? Where are you?” Shortly thereafter, like a spouse who dies shortly after the other, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill, passing away.
Chevruta matters. Companionship is profoundly meaningful. The friendship between these two men was so profound, that perhaps in the beit midrash in the World to Come, I like to think, that these two mended their ways, and were able to go on studying together.
The Rabbis, like the Psalmist, want us to know that we are not alone; that we have friends in our lives. And that those friendships really matter, because when we despair, they can give us hope. We are meant to live our lives in chevruta with one another.
Chevurta: Consider that word for a moment. The root being chaver, friend. It’s our name as well—Hevreh. Our synagogue is the place we come where we do not have to be alone. Where we can come to be known, and to know others. Where Goldstein can come to talk to God, and Stein can come to talk to Goldstein. Where care and comfort can be found. Where we can give and receive love. And out of those simple interactions between one another, we might find a touch of the Sacred. At the opening of our siddur, we include a prayer written by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg. He writes, “May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship. May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture…. May this door open the way to our search for God and our commitment to humanity. May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.”
May we know and embrace the profoundly simple idea that, “You’ve got a friend.”