Sunday, January 26, 2014

Remembering Debbie Friedman: For All That is Good

Photo by Angela Gold
I was honored to be able to share some words about my teacher and friend, Debbie Friedman, at the 3rd Yarzheit Kumsitz program in her memory, held at HUC-JIR, New York this past Thursday evening.

There are many stories told in our tradition of students learning from their teachers. When Debbie started teaching at HUC I was already ordained and working in congregational life - my friendship and connection with Debbie begins in 1998, 5 years before I moved to the USA from London. 

But Debbie was also my teacher in the most profound sense highlighted by those stories of old; the teacher who communicates through their actions.

Debbie, as anyone who ever tried to plan a service or a class with her can tell you, did not teach with lesson plans and outlines. Her teaching came straight from her soul.

And I, like so many, learned most from Debbie by observing how she did her work in the world.

Traveling often with Debbie to Healing Services in Weschester in addition to regularly attending at the JCC in Manhattan, this is what I learned from Debbie about healing:

· Many different kinds of people came to a healing service. Some of them recovered from illnesses and surgeries, and some of them did not. Some of them carried years of emotional pain and loss. We call carry some piece within that is in need of healing.

· While not every one could be cured, Debbie brought some healing to them all. She did this by creating a holy vessel in space and time in which, for at least a while, they were lifted up, embraced, and reminded that they mattered; that their presence made a difference in the lives of others. She brought them laughter, and smiles, as well as cathartic tears.

· When the service was over, Debbie was eager to leave promptly. She said emphatically, ‘this is not about me. This is about each of them. I want them to connect with each other, not with me.’ And they did. We laughed together, cried together, celebrated together and mourned together. I made some of my first friends in this country at those services and am forever grateful to them.

Debbie’s rendering of the Mi Shebeirach is, of course, one of the singularly most transformative contemporary prayers that she gifted to us.

But that soul wisdom that she shared in all that she taught us about healing infuses another blessing that she transformed. While not yet so well known, Debbie’s rendition of the Birkat haGomel is equally transformative.

Traditionally, this is a blessing that is said upon recovering from a life-threatening illness or situation. After childbirth, after a car accident, once the cancer is in remission…

The traditional formulation consists of a statement made by the survivor who thanks God for bestowing goodness upon them, and a response by the congregation who prays that God continues to bestow such goodness.

Debbie transformed the experience and the meaning of this blessing. She did this by changing the emphasis of the blessing. While she offers us names for God that describe the things we hope and wish for – Creator of Miracles, Mercy and Life; Protector, Healer – Debbie’s prayer asks us to focus on three words, over and over again: Kol tov Selah. Kol tov – all that is good. Selah – pause and consider.

But not, in fact, to pause and consider how we were saved. That is not Debbie’s prayer. ‘Give thanks for all that is good.’

For what we have is this moment, this hour, this day.

We’ve just lived through an experience that reminded us that we might not have been present in this moment. So we have a blessing to help us to pause and to remind us, literally, to stop and smell the roses. To recognize the blessings.

When we are able to do this it helps us to banish the feelings of fear that can arise and incapacitate us. We are less likely to feel alienated and alone, and more likely to feel connected with the people around us. When we can pause and appreciate the good, even in the midst of illness or loss, we are uplifted if only for a brief moment and, in that moment, we also experience a little bit of healing.

Debbie didn’t call this blessing, Birkat haGomel.

The title that you will find in the new anthology is the one she gave it – ‘For all that is good.’

Thank you, Debbie, for teaching us. Through the Torah that poured out of your very soul you taught us how to connect, how to renew the spirit, how to recognize and appreciate the good that is before us, moment by moment, and how we can bring healing to each other.