First steps toward freedom: Remembering Debbie FriedmanBeshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16
The crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, marked a pivotal moment for the Israelites. It transformed an enslaved group of individuals into a free people, a nation on a life-changing journey, an emerging holy community on the road to Sinai.
Trapped between the Sea of Reeds and the Egyptian army, the Israelites stood terrified on the shores of the sea. They cried out in fear to their leader Moses, who in turn, prayed to God for help. But, while Moses’ attention was turned toward God, a special man named Nachson ben Aminadav took matters into his own hands.
The rabbis teach in their stories that while the other tribes stood on the shore and argued about who would go into the water first, Nachson, a prince from the tribe of Judah, jumped in the raging waters of the sea. Fearless, Nachson kept marching forward, even as the water made its way up to his chest, his neck, his mouth, and finally to his nostrils before the sea split wide open and enabled the Israelites to march to freedom on dry land.
Nachson’s actions not only helped the sea to part, but his courage and bravery inspired an entire people. The rest of the Israelites followed Nachson, walked across with him, and soon everyone stood on the opposite shore of history, poised to embrace their new found freedom and make their way to the promised land. Nachson took the first step, but he brought a whole people along with him.
This week, the world lost another trailblazer with the untimely death of beloved Jewish singer, songwriter and liturgist Debbie Friedman. She was our guide on a Jewish musical journey, revolutionizing the way many of us sing and pray. As Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote in his eulogy, “[Debbie] caused us to imagine our liberation from both the minor key melodies of Eastern Europe and the large organ sound of central Europe. She took Reform Jewish music out of the choir lofts and gave it back to the people where it rightly belonged.”
But Friedman’s reach went far beyond the Reform movement or Jewish summer camp, where her music had its roots. Friedman touched people across the denominations, inspiring all of us to lift up our voices together in song. More than that, Friedman inspired an entire generation of new Jewish singers, songwriters, and prayerful Jews who found their voice in her melodies and message. Her impact is so vast that it is hard to comprehend it fully.
Friedman was Nachson for an entire generation of Jews moving from a narrow understanding of Jewish music and worship to a varied and expansive one. She led us through the waters so bravely to the other side, to a new sense of freedom, possibility and meaning. Like Nachson, Friedman forged forward first, guitar held high, water rising up around her. And then, the greatest miracle, her voice — and the hand of God — drove the water back, creating safe passage for all of us to journey ahead with her. And when we reached the others, we sang as Israel did with Miriam and Moses.
Debbie, you will be missed. You paved the way. We are all beneficiaries of your bravery, your leadership, your love and your spirit. Thank you for helping us to reach the other side. We have traveled a journey with you and we will keep going on this journey in your memory, listening to your music every step of the way.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)