Saturday, January 15, 2011

Remembering Debbie Friedman

Today is Shabbat Shira, our Sabbath of song. It is named for the section of Parashat Beshallach known as Shirat Hayam, the song of the sea. 19 verses of Torah containing some of the most beautiful poetry in the Torah. Literary theorists in support of documentary hypothesis claim that Shirat Hayam, along with Devorah’s song and Moses’ blessing at the end of Deuteronomy, is one of the oldest bits of text redacted into the Bible. It contains the familiar words mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai, mi kamocha nedar bakodesh, which we sing every day to proclaim God’s role in our salvation. Even the layout of the text in the Torah scroll draws our eye to it, and makes it stand out as special and different. They are patterned to remind us either of the waves of the sea the Israelites have just walked through, or to remind us of the bricks they use in construction for the Egyptians.

The verses after Shirat Hayam are called Shirat Miriam, the Song of Miriam. This is a refrain of the first verse of Shirat Hayam, preceded by an introduction. (Plaut pg. 490) In English it says,

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).

That’s it. That’s all Miriam sings.

In our modern narrative we often think of Miriam leading the entire Israelite community in song, and many of us conflate Shirat Hayam with Shirat Miriam.

If you flip back just one page in the Plaut Commentary (pg. 489), you can see Moses’ song in its entirety. The two-page spread of Shirat Hayam almost makes Miriam’s song pale in comparison. But we don’t think of Moses as the great singer and dancer. We think of Miriam. And we’re not the only ones. The 10th Century French commentator Rashi even suggests that Miriam’s song was an entire repetition of Moses’ song, but truncated because the Torah does not waste words.

Today we still extol Miriam as one of the great prophets of the Bible. She gets her own cup at the Passover Seder. Timbrels are decorated in her honor. Some Modern Orthodox Jews even put a piece of fish on their Seder plate to represent Miriam. All because of how much it means to us as a people to be led in song.

Music is central to the Jewish people. When we hear a niggun, a wordless melody, it helps us focus on prayer or study. We write music to our liturgy. We even read our Torah by singing it—chanting it—to drive its words into our hearts.

Those who lead us in song are great among our people. The word for Cantor in Hebrew is chazzan, which does not mean singer. It means visionary. Someone who sees deep into the meaning of the text and makes that depth accessible to us with music. In NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth group, there is a core of song leaders who are considered part of the regional board. Musicians bring meaning into Judaism and deserve a special place among us.
One musician in particular has had a long-lasting impact on the Jewish community. Sadly, we lost her this week, and communities all over the world are using this Shabbat, Shabbat Shira, to honor her memory and use her music for worship.

Deborah Lynn Friedman grew up in St. Paul, MN. She was active in her NFTY chapter, and started writing songs to the liturgy and to themes of social action, often using rabbinic and biblical texts. For almost 40 years she brought her music to Jews of all ages, all over the world.
Debbie Friedman’s music taught me the Alef-Bet. We used her version of the Ve’ahavta at the summer camp I went to. Religious school teachers used her songs to teach us about Chanukah and Tu B’shevat.

When Natalie and I were in Moscow, we went to Shabbat morning services at a tiny synagogue celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. Even there, they used Debbie Friedman’s setting to Shema, Mi Chamocha, and Mi Shebeirach. That’s what they knew.

In Fairbanks Alaska, one of the congregants asked me if I could use the traditional Mi Shebeirach for services instead of the new ones we were learning. I asked what was traditional to him, and he began humming Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach.

Her music is deeply ingrained in modern Jewish practice, and on the hearts of Modern Jews. Like Miriam, she led all the Israelites in song. Her music is our music, and our music is her legacy.