This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, marks the beginning of the journey that will define the remainder of the Torah. “So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Exodus 13:18) The wandering begins. The journey through the wilderness starts this week.
As the week draws to a close I want to reflect on the journey of Jews in America. I am given to reflect about two Jewish women. One brought the contemporary to Judaism. The other brought Judaism to the contemporary.
On Sunday the great Jewish singer and songwriter, Debbie Friedman, died. Debbie composed the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing that we sing each and every Friday night. She wrote countless other prayers that we sing. So many of her tunes have become a part of the American Jewish prayer experience that we often fail to acknowledge her authorship.
Beginning in the 1970’s Debbie Friedman rewrote the music of traditional prayers, accompanying them to contemporary sounds. She started what we now call Jewish prayer music. Before her it never occurred to anyone to accompany our praying with the contemporary sounds of folk and rock. I grew up singing her songs and still remember standing arm in arm with my youth group friends singing her version of the V’Ahavta. She revolutionized Jewish prayer. We owe her a great deal for beginning the journey we continue, of bringing the contemporary into our Jewish practice.
The other woman is Representative Gabrielle Giffords who remains in a coma after barely surviving an assassination attempt. Our hearts are joined in reciting the Mi Shebeirach prayer for the wounded, especially those injured in the shooting, and for the families of those murdered: Federal District Judge John McCarthy Roll; Gabe Zimmerman, a young staff member of Giffords who was recently engaged, Christina Taylor Green, a nine year old born on 9-11, Dorwin Stoddard, Dorthy Murray and Phyllis Scheck.
Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish. I suspect her Judaism played a part in the murderer’s motivation. He for example listed antisemitic books and organizations as among his favorites. Many people are not aware that Gifford’s Judaism figured prominently in her world outlook and approach to issues. She once remarked: “If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it. Jewish women — by our tradition and by the way we were raised — have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t or can’t be done and pull people together to be successful.”
On the issue of immigration and in particular migrant workers she was said to balance the need for security with the Torah’s teachings about reaching out to the stranger. A trip to Israel in 2001 cemented her commitment to Judaism and Israel. She said, “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from."
Born to a Jewish father and a Christian Scientist mother she would not be considered Jewish by traditional authorities. But she brought Jewish sensibilities and teachings to contemporary concerns. She found meaning in her Jewish faith. For traditional authorities as well Debbie Friedman’s prayers would not be recognized as Jewish. In my mind both women are shining of examples of what it means to be both Jewish and American, contemporary and informed by our tradition and faith.
In this week’s portion we also read the Song at the Sea, the beautiful poem sung after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds. The Mi Chamocha prayer is taken from its verses. There we read of the achievements of women and in particular an early leader. “Then Miriam the prophetess… took a timbrel in her hand, 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)
We will continue singing. We will continue wandering between the contemporary and our tradition. Our journey never ends. In two women we find guidance and inspiration.
May the memory and songs of Debbie Friedman continue to find their way into our hearts. May Representative Gabrielle Giffords be blessed with refuah shleymah, complete healing, and may we continue to learn from her example.