There’s really only one thing to write about today. In the unhappy irony that is life sometimes, today is Debbie Freidman’s funeral…to write those words is odd….and I am posting my regular weekly musings on this week’s parasha, B’shalach. This is, of course, when the Israelites have left Egypt, God leading them by a pillar of fire, and they come to the Sea of Reeds. With the Egyptian army closing in on them, for Pharoah had changed his mind one last time, the Israelites cry out and God splits the Sea, making it safe for them to cross.
And then they sing. They sing and dance, led by Miriam, the prophetess. She leads the women, who all followed after her.
When a songwriter dies too early (Stan Rogers and Steve Goodman come to mind), I mourn for the songs we’ll never get to hear, what they still had in them. Debbie, too, had more music in her, I’m sure. I didn’t know Debbie as well as others who have written about her all this week. I met her a few times because I was a singer/songwriter and songleader, too. I have that first album, “Sing Unto God”, and listened to it over and over, learning each song and chord. Talk about radical amazement! No one knew Jewish music could sound like this. Nothing in my background at Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation matched the music she was making, but I certainly preferred it. Just the act of picking up a guitar and singing prayers like that was, well, liberating.
Debbie had the ability to make the prayers more accessible, understandable, meaningful, as a songwriter, and that’s plenty. But she also understood, as a songleader, that people become one while singing, and the songleader molds that sound into one pure moment of harmony. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know…it gives you chills. The right song can start a revolution, or create a nation, and when people keep singing together, they can do great things, united and strong. The Israelites were led in song and dance by the consummate song-leader, and Miriam handed her timbrel to Debbie, across time and space. Debbie passed it on to so many more, because she knew that the power of singing starts with the empowerment of singing. She brought clarity to the vagueness of ancient language, and then she did something else. Debbie knew that it was time to move away from the “you-sing-we-listen” congregational setting. She got us up and out and singing and moving, and we discovered where true prayer lived on our own. Her songs brought us a spirituality we could hold and love and nurture. In ways we couldn’t achieve before, Debbie found a way to help us American Jews sing together, and in only that, we could experience a moment of unity.
Next year, we’ll all be commenting on B’shallach again, because that is the comforting predictability of Torah. I hope there’s more music in our lives by then. I hope we’ve learned a new song or two. It doesn’t matter how you sing, what matters is that you join in the song, and that was Debbie’s true and enduring gift to us. Miriam knew that, too. We became a people through song; as soon as we crossed over the Sea to safety, we were led in song, not by God, but by a true prophetess, one of us, one who knew we needed to feel united and strong and safe at that moment, before we walked into the unknown. I hope Debbie can hear us singing today too, to help her cross into the unknown, so that she feels safe and strong, and dearly missed.