Our Torah reading this Shabbat includes the Song at the Sea, the poem sung by Moses and the Israelites after they traverse the Sea of Reeds unharmed. The Zohar, the mystical commentary on the Bible, examines the moment in the story just before the sea opens up – the moment when the Israelites are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea.
The Torah text, in Exodus 14:10, says: “Pharaoh drew near and the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians, advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord.”
The Zohar (2:47a) goes beyond the simple meaning of the verse and explains that “Pharaoh drew near” really means that Pharaoh caused the Israelites to draw near. Draw near to whom? To God. The Zohar draws a lesson from this interpretation: that the Jewish people draw near to God only when they are in distress – and it suggests a parable. The Jewish people are like a dove who is trying to escape a hawk. Seeking refuge in the cleft of a rock, she finds a serpent there. The dove, caught between these two enemies, flaps her wings and cries out to the owner of the dove to come to her rescue.
The Zohar is correctly describing the nature of most people. Most of us turn to God only when we personally or perhaps when we, communally, are in trouble. Debbie Friedman, whose fourth yahrzeit we commemorate this Shabbat, was a women who taught a generation of American Jews to “Sing unto God,” in good times and in difficult moments in our personal or communal lives. Through her songs and her soul, Debbie Friedman transformed Jewish worship in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Debbie was a woman who confronted her physical infirmities, with which she wrestled for the last 30 years of her life, by using them as an inspiration to help others cope with our own physical spiritual and emotional disabilities and infirmaries. Her own illness led her to write the Misheberach prayer of healing that thousands of Jewish communities use in our worship services. Her faith in God and in humankind was often challenged but never broke. She truly prayed, and taught us to pray as well, as if everything depended upon God. Through her acts of loving kindness, she taught me and all who knew her that we must act as if everything depends upon us.
As we read the Song of the Sea this Shabbat, may we remember Debbie Friedman, and may we all sing her words in support of all those who are in need of physical healing. May we also hear in Debbie’s Misheberach a challenge to heal the spiritual wounds in our nation that lead us to apathetically continue to ignore the dangers of guns, to abdicate responsibility for the mentally ill, and to abuse our right of free speech by seeing it as license to spew hatred.
As I look back upon the life and death of Debbie Friedman, I realize that Debbie’s life with all of its trials was a resounding affirmation that in both good times and difficult moments it is our responsibility as well as our right to sing unto God.