Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Torch Passed and Reluctantly Accepted

When someone dies before their time, we rage and weep and wonder at the justice of it all (or rather the perceived lack of justice). Even when someone dies in old age, we aren't ready to let go (I'm reminded of a comment to the L.A. Times coverage of the death of John Wooden last year, "I know that everyone dies, but I was hoping in his case there'd be an exception"), but when that person is young, and filled with promise, and has already made an enormous contribution to the world, and has perhaps even touched us personally, we simply aren't ready to let go.

Debbie Friedman died this morning. Some of you reading this may not know who she was, so allow me a few lines to try to explain her.

Debbie Friedman was a musician, but she was more than that. She was a God-touched musician, a singer of achingly pure voice, a composer of heart-breaking melodies (and sometimes less heartbreaking than rollicking: "I am a latke" has entered the repertoire of all Hebrew school music teachers for Hanukkah enjoyment). She changed the nature of Jewish liturgical music, from the somber cantor-centered arias to guitar-accompanied, sing-along music that raised the souls of everyone who heard her and joined in with her.

She was a presence way out of proportion to the size of her person for perhaps three decades. Jewish conferences of Jewish professionals would feature her presentation, and even if the largest room available had been booked, there was inevitably standing room only, seating in the aisles, standing in the halls outside the doors. Everyone longed to be near her, to hear her music, to be healed by her songs and touched by her words.

It is inconceivable that she has died.

The Jewish world is rocked by her loss, and we struggle to face a future filled with what she left us but without the promise of her new music to come. There will be no more new music.

But here's what I believe. I believe each of us has been put here for a purpose. Some of us figure out what that is. Others never do. Still others trip over the purpose, do what we are meant to do, and then move on, never knowing how important our act was.

Debbie was meant to lift us. She was meant to infuse our souls with strength, the spices of havdalah at the end of Shabbat that would last across the week. She was meant to show us possibility, what Jewish music, what Jewish worship could be like. She was meant to open the door just a crack and give us a view to a different place.

She did that, and having done that, she was called home.

But now comes the real challenge. Having shown us what was possible, she passed the torch to us, to expect more in our services, to invest ourselves in our services, to reach out to others and with whatever gifts God has given us make of our congregations true communities.

When I have officiated at a funeral and accompany the family home to help them light the seven day shiva candle, I often quote the Proverbs that teach that God's light is the human soul. I reflect on the candle and note that the soul of the loved one we have just buried has been extinguished, but before it was, it lit sparks in each of those who loved them, and it's up to those that person left behind to keep those sparks alive.

If that is so for a person of modest reknown, known to family and dear friends, how much the more so is it so for someone like Debbie. She lit sparks of joy and God-love in each of us. Her fire has been extinguished, but our job has just begun - to keep those sparks alive. Sing her music. Create music of our own. With words or melody, reach out to God, express the fear, the joy, or the hope that within us. It's not just about singing her songs. It's about singing our own.

Y'hi zikhra barukh - may her memory be a blessing.