Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Debbie Friedman z"l / Parshat B'Shallach

This coming Shabbat we will chant Shirat HaYam, the song of Redemption our ancestors sang at the shore of the Reed Sea so long ago. Torah tells us that Moses and all Israel sang the song recorded in chapter 15 of Exodus, a joyous and jubilant expression of relief, survival, and hope. And then Torah tells us that Miriam and the women took timbrels in hand and sang their own song. Very little of it is preserved in the Torah – only the first line. We can only wonder what they sang.

Or perhaps we need not wonder. The modern day Miriam, Debbie Friedman z”l, a sweet singer of Israel, was buried today. Seven thousands people around the world watched her funeral as it was streamed live from Temple Beth Sholom in California. Thousands more – tens of thousands – know the spiritual magic of her music, which has transformed the worship in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and yes, Orthodox and Hasidic, synagogues. For many, Debbie Friedman’s music is the missing Song of Miriam and the Women. Debbie, perhaps more than anyone else, taught North American Jews how to sing to God, how to open our hearts in song, how to capture and express healing and hope, continuity and community.

But it’s more than her magical music. Despite illness and debilitation, Debbie continually affirmed God’s goodness and power to heal the human soul (if not always the human body). Rabbi Stuart Kelman recounted that Debbie composed music for Elohai n’shama she’natata bi, a prayer from the morning liturgy exalting the purity of the human soul, as well as music for Asher Yatzar, the prayer preceding it that thanks God for the most banal of bodily functions (composing the latter tune on the spot) so they would harmonize with one another, and could even be sung as a round. Our Rabbis rejected the Hellenistic idea that superior and desirable soul, and inferior and vulgar body are separate and in opposition to one another. Rather, Judaism revels in physical existence (if placing limits on human behavior) and affirms that how we live our embodied lives – doing acts of tzedakah and chesed, loving and healing one another, and singing praises to God – is blessed and approved by God. Debbie’s songs reflect a divine melding of body and soul, a spiritual expression so sweet I’m sure it makes the angels sing.

“Miriam’s Song” is among Debbie Friedman’s most famous. It is sung on Shabbat Shira in synagogues and minyanim across the country, and at seder tables round the world each Pesach. The Rabbis taught (Megillah 10b) that when Moses led the Israelites in song, the ministering angels in heaven wanted to join in, but God silenced them because the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea. I suspect, however, that the angels sang with our modern-day Miriam, Debbie, her songs of healing and hope.

To Debbie’s family (and particularly to her Aunt Erline with whom I spent this past weekend) I extend my deepest condolences. To Jews worldwide, who mourn her deeply as well, may her songs continue to offer you hope and inspiration. And to Debbie, sweet singer of Israel, may your own words accompany you to the place God has prepared for you:
Lechi lach to a land that I will show you
Lech li-cha to a place you do not know
Lechi lach on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing lechi lach
Yehi zichrona livracha – may her name be a blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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