This week, the world Jewish community lost a woman whose talents touched deep and tender places in our souls. That woman was the legendary singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman. Debbie, in her sweet and strong voice, sang with our voice. Her melodies and words calmed us, inspired us and healed us.
It was one of Debbie's early albums, "And You Shall Be a Blessing" (1989) that struck the part of my Jewish neshama yearning to make meaning in my life. The Orthodox Judaism of my youth spoke the Hebrew words and sang the traditional melodies of my ancestors, and to this day, these words and tunes continue to inspire me and to serve as the core of my Jewish identity. Yet as I grew into adulthood, I needed more from my Judaism.
As my life began to evolve and I juggled my many adult roles — wife, mother, daughter, sister, teacher — my Jewish soul longed to be touched in deeper ways. I needed the Hebrew words of my childhood to make meaning for me and to inform this complex life that I was living.
I yearned to understand the longing and the gratitude the rabbis experienced as they created the prayers of the siddur. I ached to comprehend the human struggles and uncertainties that prompted the psalmists to write the Psalms. In other words, I needed to enter the world of Jewish spirituality and asked the question: Can deep meaning be found in the traditional texts and prayers of my youth?
My answer lay in the soulful, folk-inspired music of Debbie Friedman, whose lyrics were based in Avot, Psalms, the Prophets and Torah. It was her music that opened the gates of my Jewish spirituality and launched me on a Jewish journey.
Like so many of us, I first listened to Debbie's music on cassette tapes in the car, on walks in nature and at home with my children. Such music touched my yearning neshama, taking the Hebrew words and teachings of my youth and transforming them into food for my soul. Debbie's masterful weave of Hebrew text and English translation and interpretation spoke directly to me. Listening to Debbie's music, I knew that I had "come home." Her voice was my voice, your voice, our collective voice.
Since the beginning of Debbie's prolific work in the 1980s, synagogues worldwide have incorporated her music into their liturgy. Debbie's "Mi Shebeyrach" and "Oseh Shalom" have become standard prayers for healing and peace. But for me, it is Debbie's "Lechi Lach" that resonates most strongly and plays in my mind.
"L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you
Lech l'cha, to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you,
And you shall be a blessing,
Debbie's inspirational words of "blessing" and "journey," taken from Genesis 12:1-3, beckoned me last year to walk on the path of a new journey, to a land I did not know, as I left my secular teaching job of 32 years to become a full-time rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Like Abram and Sarai, I took a risk, but I sensed in my soul that I was answering the call that had been placed in my core as a girl. I feel blessed to be on this journey, raised up by the wisdom of family, friends, teachers and community who guide me through this uncharted territory.
And it is still Debbie Friedman's sweet, strong voice — now on my iPod — that accompanies me on this journey. Her music reminds me to keep moving, step by step, on this unfolding Jewish journey of my soul.
Debbie — may your music continue to inspire us, transforming us as we grow on our individual and collective spiritual Jewish paths. Your music has been and will continue to be a blessing for us all.
Shelly Barnathan, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, teaches a class on "Melody and Meaning of Prayer: A Spiritual Approach to Judaism."