Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baruch Dayan Emet -- Debbie Friedman z"l .... and prayers for healing for Representative Gabrielle Giffords

My note to our congregation on January 9, 2011, in memory of Debbie Friedman, and out of concern for the victims of the shooting in Tucson:


Whether or not the name of Debbie Friedman is familiar to you, you are likely to have heard (and probably sung) her music.  For the last twenty-five years or more, she has been the most outstanding composer and performer of contemporary American Jewish synagogue music.  Sadly, she died today, in her late 50's, after a bout with pneumonia, and after many years of serious health challenges.

Debbie Friedman's music has been like a soundtrack for many important moments of my life.  At age 15, the first time I ever conducted a choir, we sang her "Dodi Li."  When Naomi and I got married, her "Lechi Lach" was played during our procession.   We sang songs from her album "Renewal of Spirit" as we approached the birth of each of our children.   Most Shabbatot of my adult life have concluded with her "lai lai lai" melody for the blessings of Havdalah at the end of Shabbat.  Numerous times I have sung her"Beyado Afkid Ruchi" at the bedside of people who were approaching death.  

In the life of our congregation, all of our preschool and Learning Center kids have sung her call-and-response"Alef Bet" song to teach them the Hebrew alphabet.  We sing her "Oseh Shalom" most Friday nights, and her "Mi Sheberach" Prayer for healing every Friday night.  In fact, Debbie Friedman is the person who, more than anyone else, taught American Jews how to harness the healing power of musical prayer.  Drawing in part from her own struggles with illness, her "Mi Sheberach" and many other compositions have been mainstays of American Jewish prayer services for healing.  The words of "Mi Sheberach" remind us that a "cure from illness" is not the same thing as "healing."  Sadly, the cure does not always happen -- but the healing is always possible.  The traditional formulation is "refu'at ha-nefesh u-refu'at ha-guf," which she translated as "renewal of body, renewal of spirit."    (See here for some words from Debbie Friedman about healing.)

More than twenty years ago, when I first met her and had the opportunity to sing in a choir she was leading at a conference for Jewish educators, I remember being amazed:  here was a Jewish musician, who had the stage presence that I would expect from a "regular" musician.    Remarkably, (at that time at least,) she was not able to read music, but this did not stop her from composing melodies that were simple yet profound and that perfectly captured the traditional texts to which she set them, and that seemed perfectly designed as receptacles for heartfelt prayer.

I haven't even mentioned Debbie Friedman's joyful music for kids, or the pioneering role she played as a woman in synagogue musical life.  Her loss profoundly touches our community and American Jewish communities across the religious spectrum.

According to the Talmud: אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: כל תלמיד חכם שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר.
"Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:  Any time someone quotes the teachings of a deceased scholar, it is as if that scholar's lips are speaking from beyond the grave." (Eruvin 96b).    Debbie Friedman made her life a blessing, and her lips will continue to sing from beyond the grave for as long as individuals and communities use the musical gifts that she brought us.

(The memorial gathering for her that took place at the Jewish Community Center of New York this evening can be seen at 
http://www.ustream.tv/channel/service-at-the-jcc.) 

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In a cruel coincidence, Debbie Friedman's "Mi Sheberach" was sung earlier today in Tucson, Arizona, at Representative Gabrielle Giffords' synagogue, as her friends and family gathered for prayers of healing for her and others injured and bereaved after the shooting spree that killed six and left Representative Giffords in critical condition.  As Americans and as Jews, the horror of that event is beyond words, as we join in with the prayers for healing and for comfort.  

While only the gunman and his co-conspirators (if any) have apparently committed murder and attempted murder, this event sounds a cautionary note for any who engage in inflammatory political speech.   Many of us remember the weeks and months preceding the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, when violent political rhetoric (mostly from people who had no intention to provoke violence) set the stage for violent action by making it less unthinkable.    May we and our leaders take the words of the Book of Proverbs to heart:  מות וחיים ביד לשון - "Death and life come through the power of the tongue."  (18:21)  The words we choose to use, especially when we refer to our adversaries, can have painful consequences, or healing consequences.