Last Shabbat, in synagogues, community centers and minyanim of all descriptions, Debbie Friedman (z”l, of blessed memory) continued to bring the force of healing to the world as people sang her songs as a tribute to her life. For many, Friedman’s music and teaching have defined the experience of liberal Judaism and articulated a powerful, distinctly North American vision of what it means to be a Jew.
Her body of work is quite large, but Debbie Friedman may be most remembered for her setting of Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing that is sung weekly in many congregations. During this prayer, congregants are commonly asked to pray for specific people who are sick or otherwise in poor health. The care and support of others as they recover from illness or injury are an important part of community life. But Debbie Friedman’s music, teaching and lived example were built upon the assumption that healing is a vital life force and must be understood beyond the condition of our bodies.
I am not a theologian, or a teacher, but nonetheless I’d like to attempt a brief meditation on the power of healing and how we can take concrete steps to bring healing to our lives.
Regardless of how one believes the world came into being, it is not a matter of religious faith to observe how creation affects the world every day. In frosty January, especially with the weather we have been having, I am reminded of the seemingly miraculous appearance of tulips and daffodils in the spring. As the first green shoots emerge from the earth, they often have to push through some snow on their journey toward fresh air and sunlight. This is creation.
A less aesthetically pleasing example is the effect of the interaction between a few stray mold spores and the contents of a Petri dish that resulted in the discovery of penicillin. This life-giving, moldy example is creation too. And the miracle of families – whether by marriage or personal commitment, birth or adoption – this is also creation.
Creation is a foundational theme of Jewish religion and spirituality. Maimonides’ writings regarding the principles of faith, describe the existence of G-d in terms that affirm creation as a continuous and dynamic process.
As Jews we are taught that we are called not to only affirm creation but to take part in it, not just in our own lives but to do nothing less than repair the world.
From this perspective, then, creation serves as a force that brings life to the world and restores balance or wholeness. This is big stuff, no? I don’t know about you, but for me it’s easy to feel that this is literally too awesome to be able to do anything with. Fortunately for us, Rav Friedman’s music maps out a path to follow.
Blessing can be a noun, as something experienced or received; or a verb, as an act that infuses something with holiness, or transmits love or affirmation. Debbie Friedman sang a lot about blessing! From Mi Shebeirach:
May the Source of Strength who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing and let us say, Amen.
From L’Chi Lach:
And you shall be a blessing.
Friedman’s call to blessing is all about the verb. The idea of making our lives a blessing and being a blessing leads us to take action, by bringing the force of creation to bear on the challenges of life and of our broken world. And of our broken selves.
Healing is often thought of as recovery from illness, or repair of a bodily defect. But for Debbie Friedman, as well as those in the Jewish Healing movement this a profoundly limiting concept. As I was preparing this post, I tapped into my social network with a simple question: What does healing mean to you?
My friend David, who worked for a time as a chaplain, underscores the idea of healing being bigger than the physical. “Healing is…distinct from the concept of ‘cure,’” David wrote. “There can be profound healing whether or not there is ever a cure. In my experience, healing is when there is wholeness in body, mind and spirit.” For David healing is about the way that the body, mind and spirit connect and share interdependence.
My uncle Luke lives with a serious chronic illness. He told me that he thinks of healing as “grounding,” a way of not being imprisoned by his physical limitations or emotional lows. “If my body is ailing, my spirit kicks into overdrive and all is well…if I slip into the dumps, my spirit kicks in and all is well.”
Although David and Luke have never met, they could have been taking part in the same conversation. For these two men, healing means to transcend the difficulty of physical and emotional pain. And Debbie Friedman’s music showed us a way of activating the life-giving force of creation by making blessings.
Being a Blessing
We don’t have to be physicians, therapists, rabbis, or musical liturgists to create the opportunity for another person’s healing. Presence and intention can have a powerful impact and can be used by any of us at any time. The kind attention of another human being is a gateway through which healing, like an early-spring daffodil, can emerge. We don’t have to provide any answers, or make anything better. My friend Raymond wrote that he thinks “healing” means “listening.” And we can create quiet to listen to ourselves, and to be kind to ourselves, just as much as we can offer this to others. If only we can find the courage to do so.
Debbie Friedman has given the world many gifts, but perhaps most precious are the gifts of blessing and healing. And because we can never wish this too often: may our lives be a blessing.
Thank you to Emily Cornell, Luke Gentle, Raymond Luczak and the Rev. David G. Smith for sharing their thoughts on healing with me.