He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

If you are from a certain era you know this song. One of the biggest hits of 1969, the music and lyrics were written by Bobby Scott and Bob Rusell, but it was the version recorded by the Hollies that put the song over the top. (Trivia alert – Elton John plays keys on the track!) In many ways it captured the zeitgeist of the times – the young people were determined to watch out for each other, care for each other, have each other’s back, and to do so unconditionally and non-judgmentally. It was communal, and it was community. Still today folks whose souls were shaped in that era will call each other brother.

The song has been buzzing around in my brain over the last days, really since I’ve returned from #RTI, known in the vernacular as ‘rabbi’s camp.’ A once a year retreat in rural Maryland for Conservative rabbis from around the country, that is marked by great davening, deep learning, and sincere and serious sharing. I am convinced one of the reasons ‘campers’ come back year after year is because we can truly let our hair down. We pray and learn together during the day, we play guitar and drink scotch and wine at night. We wear t-shirts and jeans, old sweaters and junky baseball caps. We talk and share, compare shop, tell our funniest funeral stories and saddest wedding stories (yes you read that correctly), and wrestle with issues both congregational and movement wide.

But I think more than anything else we support each other. The rabbi business can be lonely. RTI is a place where rabbis can unburden the burdens, openly voice the doubts, and allow the vulnerability to seep through the polished and professional veneer. In letting our hair down we let our hearts out, something we rarely have the chance to do or the place to do it in. This can be difficult, even painful sometimes, but it also can leave you feeling a little bit lighter, brighter, and clearer, and a lot more grateful. You know you’ve got colleagues who are also wrestling – intensely wrestling – with what it means to do ‘God’s work.’

Of course the title of the song has a double meaning. Heavy is the key word. Not weight wise, or course, but existentially. ‘Its heavy, man!’ Deep, hard, mystical, full of awe, troubling, difficult, glorious, inspiring. Back in the day ‘heavy’ could mean any of those things, or all of them. In other words, a one word description of life. Or, maybe, of being a rabbi.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

And here a link to the Hollies version of the song on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT57tjz9py8

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1 Comment

Filed under clergy, community, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

One response to “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

  1. Joseph Napora

    The song has always been a fav of mine! We have a good friend, an Episcopalian Priest, who always greets me with, “How good to see you my brother.” It always feels so good!
    I was a bit unsettled to read of your frustration at not being able to really let go as our Rabbi, but of course it isn’t the same as being in jeans, a t shirt and an old baseball cap with “no holds barred.” jonap

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