On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – B'Shalach: Remembering Debbie Friedman z"l on Shabbat Shira

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat B’shalach, is read on Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. Music is highlighted on this particular Shabbat: In this portion, the prophetess Miriam leads the other women in playing their timbrels, and the accompanying Haftarah reading features the Song of Deborah. Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses these texts and remembers Debbie Friedman z”l, the legendary Jewish songwriter, as her yahrzeit approaches. He shares his personal memories of Debbie, paying tribute to her profound gifts and their lasting effect on the Jewish world.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat B'Shalach, using it as a framing to actually teach us about one of our greatest teachers, Debbie Freedman.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashah B'shalach from the Book of Exodus, also known as Shabbat Shira. This particular Sabbath is the Sabbath of Song. Of course it is the section that we read when the Israelites crossed the sea of reeds. And they made it across. And then on the other side, we're told that Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her and dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them. We know this incredible passage, it's filled with joy with freedom. It also is a section that reminds us of the power of song -- and those great leaders who had that gift. Miriam, of course in the Torah portion, [is] not simply the song leader of that moment; we're told that she is a full prophet, just like her brothers. She's not simply a joyful artist. She's someone who is able to channel the Holy One.

We're also told that this week the haftarah, the accompanying section from the Prophets, is the Song of Deborah, the remarkable Biblical figure who is inspirational. We know that she, Devora, is a female prophetess, an inspirational courageous figure and leader, that she was a judge in Israel and she used her great strength not just to resolve disputes, but also to be someone who fought for justice, and someone whose leadership is felt to this day. I would also point out that it is in January that we observe the yahrtzeit of Debbie Friedman -- one of the modern day Miriams, a modern day Devora, someone whose gift of song just animated an entire generation.

Debbie is responsible, between 1971 in 2010, she recorded 22 albums! And she was a force. She was a force filled with depth, not simply with the gift of music. She had a spiritual depth and a gift that she has given to the Jewish people.

I'll share in a moment one of her great songs is a book -- sorry, a song about Devora, where she takes the biblical story and as she does always, she distills "Arise, arise Devorah -- uri, uri, dabri shir. Arise, arise and sing your song." Our Debbie Friedman sang her song and changed Jewish life in the process.

You know I think of when Debbie came, you know, really barreling into Jewish life back in the 60s and 70s. I have to say organized Jewish life was struggling. For too many of us worship was dull and distant. But all that changed. There was a revolution, and one woman in particular helped blaze a trail that many of us still traverse, and that woman was and is Debbie Friedman. You have to say, Debbie's soul was on fire. Sparks from her soul have ignited a whole generation.

I met Debbie at Camp Swig in 1976. She was there for a year, she had been of course shaped by OSRUI, our URJ camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. But when Debby came to Swig, she brought her gift -- and oh my, song session Shabbat t’filah. She somehow was able to get everyone not just to their feet, but to dig down into their souls and find the source of spiritual renewal.

I love Pete Seeger [who] said "Any damn fool can get complicated in praising Woody Guthrie," but Pete Seeger said, "it takes a genius to attain simplicity." I think Debbie was a genius. Her music had a simplicity, a spirit -- Hebrew and English, she got inside these texts. Her great song about Miriam is still for many of us one of the ways that we really take hold of the Biblical Miriam. It's through Debbie and her gift.

I think about years that I was blessed to lead healing services once a month with Debbie and Rabbi Shira Milgram of Kol Ami, and Debbie just had something profound to teach in her music, but also in her words. She was literate she was learned, and she took great, great personal growth from our text and our tradition. You know, she had some idiosyncratic things when she would lead Mishe'berach in healing service, she'd always want to say, you know, the first time, "Just hold on. This is for you." And then she'd invite people to sing, but she knew that as a healer we all were in need of her healing. I remember, you know, one particular healing service, it was just about eight o'clock and Debbie was over. I thought she was tuning her guitar, but actually she was hearing a song in her head, in her heart and she was downloading it. I think Rabbi Ken Chasan was there with her, and you know, said "Listen to this." And it was that "those who sow in tears will reap in joy." It just came to her. We were going to read the text in the course of the healing service, she heard the melody and she wanted to hold it and to refine it. And that's how it worked with Debbie. There was a spark -- and boom, there was a revelation.

She could take a group of people and animate with such -- just, unbelievable skill. The voices that we all sometimes sing with a muted self-consciousness. Debbie could unleash the fullness of who we are.

One of the things that makes me smile every time I hear it is that the cantorial school of our Reform movement at HUC-JIR in New York is called The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. That meant so much to all of us who were Debbie's students, as I count myself. She didn't live to know the power of that name.

For some people when Debbie started they said, "Well she's not a Cantor, she's not a serious musician." But over time, Debbie won everybody over. You couldn't miss the gift that she gave by bringing life back to services, creating a joyful relationship to the Biblical and liturgical texts. And the ability she had of sometimes writing in Hebrew and English --lechi lach, the t’filat haderech, the Song for the Way, a prayer for travelers. You can just go on and on, but because it's Parashat B'shalach, and because it's Miriam and Devora, I just would just [like to] read from her lyrics from the Devora song she was able to distill.

She says Devora the prophet was a judge in Israel. She sat beneath her palm tree on a hill, and people came from everywhere just to hear her judgments. Honest and fair Devora the Prophet, Devora a mother in Israel. Devorah the Prophet was courageous, strong, and wise. Her people lived in peace for forty years. The Twelve Tribes lived together as one, Debbie continues, for the first time since the world had begun Devora the prophet, Devora a mother in Israel.

And then we go back to "Arise Devora, arise and sing a song." Uri, uri, dabri shir.

I know we're talking about the biblical Devora as Debbie wrote it and sang it, but I can't stop thinking about not Devorah but Debbie -- our Debbie Friedman, whose voice, whose gift to song, whose spiritual impact is felt over and over every time we pray, every time we sing.

I also am always amazed, you know, with Debbie we always had this ritual for a healing service. We had this elaborate cue-sheet to know exactly what we were going to do: We were going to do this song, and then were going to follow up with this poem. And I remember after the first healing service we did together, I said to Debbie afterwards, I said, "Debbie I know we took such time and pains to craft exactly the right cues. But I have to say you didn't follow any of the cues on the cue sheet."

And she said, "Oh how could I? I was in the moment. I knew in that moment what needed to be sung and where we needed to dig down and where we needed to skip over.".

I said "Well if you know that only by being the moment, can we save the hour and a half or two hours of carefully making a cue-sheet?"

She said, "No you can't skip that! Spontaneity happens because you're really well prepared, and then you open yourself to the moment." That's one of Debbie's gifts. Miriam the prophetess took a timbrel in her hand -- that wasn't planned out. There was no cue-sheet. That moment required singing and dancing, and Debbie throughout her life knew how to be in those moments so I hope as we read the amazing Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah in the parashah and in the haftarah, that we'll be inspired by the Biblical Miriam and the Biblical Devora. But I hope that we will be incredibly inspired to find our voices by a modern-day prophet, a modern-day wizard, a modern-day extraordinary leader of the spirit, Debbie Friedman. May her memory forever be a blessing. May her memory and her music inspire us today tomorrow and every day.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org, and on Apple Podcasts where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!