This Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, so-called because the Torah portion, Beshallach, contains Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15.1-21), a beautiful paean of praise that Moses led the Israelites in singing as they walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land. It is also called The Song of Miriam, because it concludes with Miriam’s leading the women in the song, as they took up their timbrels and danced. Our Haftarah is the Song of Deborah, taken from the Book of Judges.
In celebration of Shabbat Shirah, this evening for “Fourth Friday,” Student Cantor Ben Harris and Dr. Shinae Kim will team up with Student Cantor Alexandra Kurland for a Kabbalat Shabbat service of glorious music. I hope you will come, 6:30 as always, followed by Shabbat dinner.
In addition, tomorrow morning I will have the pleasure of chanting Shirat HaYam with the special trope reserved for this song. As some of you know, I got in the way of the virus that has been making its way around New York this month, and I couldn’t speak for a few weeks. But thankfully, though not 100%, there’s enough voice there now to chant this song. I have to say that having had the opportunity, virtually each year, to chant this song, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. And I will relish the opportunity this Shabbat.
As you know, the Hebrew calendar only approximately coincides with the Gregorian calendar. In the year 2009, the Torah portion we are reading this week, Beshallach, was being read during the week of January 9th, and concluded with the chanting of Shirat HaYam on Saturday, January 15.
I recall that particular date because in the midst of a week of praise and song, we also we lost one of the sweetest angels of song that ever graced our world. Early in the morning, on Sunday, January 9, 2009, Debbie Friedman died.
It is almost as though it were pre-ordained—that Debbie Friedman’s name will forever be recited for yahrzeit on the Sabbath of Song, along with the names of Miriam and Devorah, about whom she sang so resolutely….
In tribute to Debbie, I would like to recall for you a portion of the sermon I delivered some nine months after her death, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, 2009…
Debbie belonged to a women’s group in Jerusalem, led by several well-known feminists, chief among them, the outstanding scholar and social activist Alice Shalvi. At Debbie’s funeral, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College, read a letter that Debbie wrote to Dr. Shalvi not long before. Debbie wrote:
“I hardly ever made it to the Rosh Chodesh group. Most of the time it was because I was out of the city and sometimes it was because I was too frightened to be amongst so many people. Given who I am and what I do, one would think that would not be the case… These few comments about my fears, though self-indulgent, are relevant to what I think to be the subject of one’s own death. I think we are frightened of our own death for a few reasons.
“First of all, we wonder if we have given anything to the world—enough that we will be remembered. Then, we are terrified that we are going to be forgotten—that we will have lived and worked hard to make a difference in the world and it will all have been for nothing because it is forgotten, and we are forgotten; that, in fact, we are nothing more than dust and ashes. Another reason is because death is an unknown…and I like to plan my day for the most part. I like to know what is waiting for me. I don’t mind a bit of spontaneity, but I would prefer to know more about Olam Haba.
“But I think the thing I fear most about death is my fear of life. I haven’t yet mastered the art of living. How can I leave this world when I haven’t yet learned to live in it and manage it? If I don’t know how to live with openness and without fear, how will I ever be able to look at death’s face when we meet? How can I possibly be gracious? It would seem that before I die I must learn to live life without fear. I must learn to live with chen and chesed (grace and mercy) and a loving and open heart. Once I accept this, embrace the beauty of this world, both life, and the way in which I see death will be transformed. This is not an intellectual exercise that can be remedied by a passage from text. The answers will come from the text of our experience. This is clearly a matter of the soul with which we all must struggle.”
Dr. Ellenson’s response to Debbie’s thoughts?
“How could you, Debbie, ever think you would be forgotten, or that your life would be for nothing! Your soul will not perish, and your spirit and your voice, your being, will touch and comfort us in moments of sadness and joy forever.”
And indeed, the School of Sacred Music—the Cantorial School of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion—the same school that once rejected Debbie’s application for admittance as a student—now has been renamed The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
Most of us live less public lives, and do the best we can with the talents we have, and also, within our limitations. Most of our names will not be known throughout the world, and we will live our lives within more limited spheres of influence. Nevertheless, our tradition goes to great lengths to teach us that the meaning of our lives is not derived from extraordinary accomplishments known the world over, nor is it derived from the size of our bank accounts, or the length of our CV’s. Rather, it consists in the relationships we have forged, one with the other: with our families, our close friends, our colleagues and co-workers; and the satisfaction of knowing that we did what we did in this life in the best way we could. Maybe we even have made someone else’s life better because they knew us, and because they know that we loved them.
If there is one thing that perhaps we ought to take away with us on this Day of Atonement, it is what Debbie Friedman, I dare say, would have wanted us to take away. It is that each of our lives is infinitely valuable, and that each of our lives has meaning. That is what our Jewish tradition teaches us. Thus we are commanded to value each other, and to value ourselves.
And we shall be a blessing.