A renewal of body, a renewal of spirit –
and let us say, “Amen.”
Debbie’s life as a teacher, student, composer, liturgist, and concertizer was driven by her hope of bringing a new depth of awareness to individuals, in order to heal self and to reach out to heal others – in song.
In a 1997 national interview with Robert Siegel on National Public Radio, Debbie observed:
Early on in the Reform movement, there was a leaning toward more intellectuality and less emotional, less spiritual – anything that was 'a-rational' really didn't have a place. I think that the greatest breakthrough that has happened in these past maybe 20, 25 years, is that those walls are crumbling; that people have found now that we need to be integrated human beings that know and think and also feel.
In Life Cycles, Debbie stated:
When disaster befalls us, we have the option to withdraw or to attempt to transform the experience into a teacher for ourselves, our friends, our families, and our communities. Our personal disaster may not only be our gift, it may sometimes be another’s gift as well. It is our obligation to discover these gifts and give them to others.
A person cannot free himself from bondage. The truth is we are all prisoners, and we all need to help each other out of prison. Healing is in recognizing that each of us is limited. None of us is perfect. Jacob wrestled with the angel and walked away. We are all limping. But, we all have the potential to heal and to use our shattered hearts to bring comfort to others and to the brokenness of the world. [Palm Beach Jewish Times, 1996]
Her understanding of the community’s role in the healing of the individual drove Debbie to be a leader in modern Judaism’s healing movement. The song that many consider to be Debbie’s most widely-known is her Mi Shebeirach – a prayer for healing. Her melody and interpretation of the liturgy (along with collaborator Drorah Setel) have made this prayer accessible and meaningful to countless people in need of healing – or who know someone in need of healing.
The 'success' and proliferation of Mi Shebeirach also inspired synagogues and entire Jewish movements, who had previously removed the traditional Mi Shebeirach prayer from their liturgy, to add it back, this time with new meaning. In addition, out of Debbie's song has sprung a movement of healing services, held in synagogues, homes, hospitals, and by the bedside of the infirmed and dying. This may be Debbie's greatest mitzvah.
A Note From Debbie
WE ARE POWERFUL. It is hard to remember that. Sometimes, life takes it turns into the unknown and presents us with challenges we would have preferred not to encounter under any circumstances. Suddenly, we are confronted with our pain.
It is a strange thing that pain creates beauty and potential for healing. It is hard to imagine that it can provide a foundation for beautiful moments to arise. We attempt to find a way to manage survival from one minute to the next, as pain becomes the overriding force. When we are experiencing emotional discomfort, we need to find a safe place to express our grief and loss.
The willingness to both offer and receive blessings of healing and well-being allows one who is wounded to transform and unravel their pain. Our pain need not bury us. Instead it may elevate us to the point of healing – if we choose to allow it.
It is with this concept in mind that the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, which is a concise English translation of the traditional prayer, is now available for you to download. For those who know it and use it, use it in good health. Use it for yourselves, for others, and for those in your lives who do not know it, but may need it.
With this, you become the messenger. We are not just the recipients of blessings, but the messengers of blessings as well. Remember, out of what emerges from life's painful challenges will come our healing. And ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another's pain – "to release another from their confinement."
And you shall be a blessing,
Of Debbie's care for the ill, the Jewish Week quoted John Ruskay of the UJA-Federation of New York:
[Debbie] was our teacher in front of thousands at communal conferences and concerts around the world... [Q]uite remarkably, Debbie was also available at the bedsides of those who were ill; convening healing services for the terminally ill, to provide an infusion of inspiration and courage.
In American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna offered the following comments about the role Debbie played in the beginnings of the Jewish world’s healing movement:
...[E]very one of the Jewish spiritual movements of the late twentieth-century employed the metaphors of illness. Minds, bodies, spirits, synagogues — all stood in dire need of healing, these spiritual diagnosticians proclaimed. To them, Judaism appeared to be desperately unwell. ...While their precise prescriptions for how to do this varied, they generally recommended some mix of emotive prayer, ritual observance, textual learning, singing, dancing, the embrace of community...
Synagogues of all kinds added “spiritual dimensions” to their agenda. Moving beyond their prior emphasis on rationalism and the pursuit of social justice, they encouraged congregants to experiment with rituals, to explore Jewish texts, to close their eyes and meditate, to dance, to sing. A Reform Jewish folksinger named Debbie Friedman gave voice to this movement. Her Jewish ‘soul music’ – sung in hundreds of synagogues, performed to packed concert halls, and preserved on albums like Renewal of Spirit (1995) – offered seekers, in Friedman’s words, ‘a sense of spiritual connectedness.’ On one memorable occasion she moved even staid conventiongoers at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federation to tears. Standing together in their business suits and high heels, they swayed arm-in-arm to her melodies and lyrics...
Some synagogues went so far as to introduce separate healing services into their worship calendars, complete with laying on hands. [In 2004], at least twenty Jewish communities around the United States developed Jewish healing centers, most of them affiliated with a new National Center for Jewish Healing. The goal, clearly influenced by New Age religious movements, was to help Jews achieve a ‘sense of spiritual well-being, wholeness, perspective, fulfillment or comfort, especially around issues of illness, suffering and loss.’
With a holistic view of humankind, this prayer asks for physical cure as well as spiritual healing – asking for blessing, compassion, restoration, and strength, within the community of others facing illness, of body and spirit. Now, the melody is sung as a mainstay in prayer services in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist and Renewal congregations throughout the world.
During an interview, Debbie recounted experiences of those in need of physical, spiritual, and emotional healing:
There is the woman wearing a tichel, who sits with her child at her side. She holds her daughter close to her side, mouthing the words to the prayers. It is clear that she is not wearing that tichel because she is observant. Her sunken eyes and pale face reveal that she is wearing the tichel because she is in the process of chemotherapy. She is looking for a lifeline. She is waiting to hear a prayer that will stay with her. She is waiting for help to her find a way – a prayer that she will be able to use to transcend her fear. She is searching for the glue that will hold her together. She is looking for a way to bring comfort to her child and alleviate her fear.
There is a man in a beautiful Armani suit. His head is in his hands. He is sobbing. His wife just died. He lifts his head. Tears are rolling down his cheeks. He is inconsolable. He is lost in his pain. He is naked and exposed. Where will he go? How will he find any place where he can silence the sounds of the tears rolling off his cheeks?
Cheryl Friedman, Debbie's older sister, shares the following account, from the end of Debbie's life, as a poignant illustration of the crucial role the Mi Shebeirach plays for many modern Jews. There are moments that shatter the souls of those facing the death of a loved one or one’s own death -- and myriad other of life’s profound losses:
The hours passed. No words of hope came from the medical team. For the first two days, I felt a sense of hope when a doctor would ask to speak with me. But the news was never good. I came to dread those requests. Then came the night when the lead doctor took me aside and told me to arrange for my mother to come to the hospital — not tomorrow morning, but now. My knees buckled under me. My first thought was to call my rabbi. I wanted her there when my mother arrived.
I was terrified, anticipating my inability to console and protect my mother. "She will die, too," I thought. My rabbi answered her phone. I broke down uncontrollably. "Debbie is dying and thereʼs no one to sing the Mi Shebeirach for her."
It was a moment of unspeakable fear and helplessness.
This prayer and melody gives those shattered souls a voice – a place to go when there is no place to go.
May Debbie's memory be for a blessing.