On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away. While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance. Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.
On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi. When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited. Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded). When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain. Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me. One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.
Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way. For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music. In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others. She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question. She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.
During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us. Now we sing it for her.
At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema. I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives. I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.
What is in the power of a name? Why is naming someone in prayer so sacred and moving? I will never forget my experience when I was working as a hospital chaplain at memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One morning, early in my career as a chaplain, I asked a Jewish patient whom I was visiting if she would like me to say the Jewish prayer for healing for her called the Mishuberach, literally meaning, “May the one who blesses.” She said yes, and I chanted the ancient words, inserting her name at the appropriate place in the blessing asking for a complete recovery of body and soul. When, I concluded the prayer, I looked up to see tears streaming down her face. I sat with her as she composed herself. She then said, “Thank you. I have never heard anyone pray for me before. It was so powerful to hear you say my name in prayer.”
How many of us ever hear our names lifted up in prayer? How many of us ever feel the power of a prayer or blessing intended for us alone?
As soon as I stood up to leave the patient’s bedside, her roommate on the other side of the curtain called out, “Rabbi, could you come say that blessing for healing for me too? It was so beautiful.” I walked around the curtain and introduced myself to the woman in the bed. She told me that her name was Mary, and I then asked her if she was Jewish. She said, “No, and I did not understand the Hebrew part of the prayer you just recited. But it touched my heart and I would like you to recite it for me.” In that moment, I realized that a blessing has no borders. It did not matter that I was a rabbi and she was not Jewish, what mattered was that my tradition had a prayer for healing that could help her. I recited the prayer for her using her name in Hebrew and English. When I was done, we both had tears in our eyes. The emotions I experienced are hard to describe without sounding corny. There was a deep connection between us that transcended religion, age, the well and the sick.
Some people question reciting a prayer for healing saying that in many cases God does not bring healing to the one who is ill. But in my mind there is a difference between healing and curing. God may not be able to cure an individual’s illness, but I do believe that God can bring healing even to those who are very sick and facing death. Healing certainly happened in that hospital room in Sloan Kettering that day. Both of the women were released from their suffering if only for a minute. One felt a profound joy in hearing her name recited in a blessing. The other felt a strong connection to me as another human who cared about her and who brought Gods presence to her in her hospital room.
If you want to bring healing to someone who is suffering physical or mental anguish, I offer these words from the traditional liturgy:
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless (insert name here). May God grant mercy upon him/her, strengthen him/her , and bring healing. May God send him/her a complete healing of body and soul together with all who suffer illness. And let us say Amen.
The great singer and songwriter, Debbie Freidman wrote a song based on this prayer which often sung in place of the traditional words above. You can hear her song here: