Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Debbie Friedman and the Healing Power of Music

On Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook page this past September, the Facebook founder and CEO posted that he was "celebrating Rosh Hashanah." In his Facebook post, Zuckerberg offered the following blessing to his millions of followers:

I want to wish L'Shana Tova to everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish new year and a moment to reflect on our limited time here so we may live more meaningfully. My favorite Jewish prayer is called Mi Shebeirach. It has a line that has always touched me and that I reflect on when I face challenges: "Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing." I hope you all have a wonderful year ahead and that you find the courage to make a positive and meaningful change in the world this year.

There was something beautiful about Zuckerberg's Rosh Hashanah greeting, but I also took notice that his favorite Jewish prayer is called "Mi Shebeirach." There are actually several Mi Shebeirach prayers, but of course the one Zuckerberg was referencing is the popular prayer for healing. Thirty years ago, when Zuckerberg was a year old, it would be unlikely for someone to cite the prayer for healing as ones favorite prayer. The reason that Zuckerberg, like so many others, considers the "Mi Shebeirach" as their favorite prayer is thanks to one woman.

This past Shabbat marked five years since the well known singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman passed away following a long battle with cancer. Her contributions to Jewish prayer and spirituality have endured since her passing and whenever I hear someone mention the Mi Sheberach for healing, as Zuckerberg did, I'll think of Debbie Friedman and her beautiful rendition of this prayer that brought it to the level of mass appeal.

A couple weeks from now we will observe Shabbat Shira when we chant the Song of the Sea from Chapter 15 of Exodus. It is an appropriate time to reflect on both the power of music in prayer and on Debbie Friedman's immense contributions to synagogue spirituality through her powerful music.

Music has long been used to help people celebrate and mark special religious occasions. The Hora dance is the quintessential Jewish dance at simchas (celebrations), but the Hora just wouldn't be the Hora without the catchy song Siman Tov U’Mazel Tov. Without that song, the Hora would just be another circle dance.

That's an example of music to help us celebrate during times of joy. I recently thought about the power of music during challenging times when hope is needed. A recent story in the USA Today  about Michigan resident Taylor McPherson provides some insight on why Debbie Friedman's beautiful version of the Mi Sheberach is such a popular song when people are seeking God's help for those suffering. Taylor complained of a constant headache and was told by doctors that she had a ruptured blood vessel bleeding into her brain. She went through intensive surgery and, after waking up from a medically-induced coma, Taylor was terrified to realize that not only could she not remember who her parents were, but she couldn't speak either.

She would try to speak, but she didn’t have a voice. That didn’t last for long because with the help of a guitar, Taylor slowly found her voice again. Her music therapist encouraged her to express how she felt through her rehab journey. And that’s the story of how Taylor’s song, "Keep Your Head Held High," was created. Taylor always loved music and it was a big part of her life pre-surgery. The music therapy did more than just help her find her voice. Music strengthened Taylor’s breathing and memory and made her mentally stronger. To anyone else who is struggling and needs to find a source of healing, Taylor advises them to sing their heart out.

As we mark five years since Debbie Friedman died, we should reflect on the gift of healing through music that she gave us. The Jewish Theological Seminary, when I began rabbinical school in the late 90s was not a very spiritual place, but I'll never forget the day when, for a few hours, the Women's League Seminary Synagogue was transcended into the most ruach-filled place I ever experienced. It was during winter recess, when the rabbinical school held a "mini-mester." The theme was spirituality in prayer and the conclusion of the mini-mester featured Debbie Friedman leading a spirited healing service. Her energy electrified the Seminary's synagogue where students, faculty and guests were singing and dancing. I remember thinking that if I could bottle up her ruach, I could sell it for millions of dollars to  congregations around the globe. Debbie Friedman's music added so much life and feeling to our liturgy... and it still does five years since she left us.

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