As word spread that Debbie Friedman was gravely ill, people around the world prayed for her recovery. Many turned to “Mi Shebeirach,” her version of the traditional Jewish prayer for healing and probably her best-known song. Our prayers and our loving song did not prevent Debbie’s death, but neither were they offered in vain. Indeed, for Debbie, the purpose of “Mi Shebeirach” was about much more than physical healing.
The story of “Mi Shebeirach” begins in 1987, when a friend of Debbie’s, Marcia Cohn Spiegel, decided to hold a Simchat Hochmah, a ceremony celebrating aging, an idea originally conceived by the scholar Savina Teubal. Marty — as Marcia was known to her friends — was a pioneer in researching alcoholism and other forms of abuse within the Jewish community. During the 1980s, she had suffered profound losses, including the death of her husband. Her work with individuals who had suffered trauma and her own grief led Marty to conceive of this ceremony as a way to accept emotional and spiritual pain while still embracing life: in other words, as a path to healing. She asked her close friends Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Marcia Falk, Debbie and myself to help her create the ceremony and specifically asked Debbie to create a composition of the Mi Shebeirach prayer. Debbie, in turn, asked me to collaborate with her on the blessing.
In working with the words of the Mi Shebeirach prayer, Debbie and I were concerned with several issues. First and foremost at that time was the growing AIDS crisis in the gay community, which affected many who were part of our extended family of friends. How, we wondered, could we ask for refuah sh’leima, for a “complete healing,” for people who had what was at the time a terminal illness? It seemed not only cruel but contrary to the Jewish prohibition against knowingly praying for something in vain. We thought it would be more appropriate to focus on the possibility of spiritual healing, an experience of wholeness and blessing even in the face of death. We kept the rabbinic phrase refuah sh’leima but redefined it as the “renewal,” rather than the repair, of body and spirit.
The second issue was our desire to retain the familiar feeling of the prayer while making it gender inclusive. The opening line, mi shebeirach avoteinu (“The One who blessed our fathers”), spoke to the hearts of many Jews. Rather than replacing it, we added the words makor ha-barachah l’imoteinu (“Source of Blessing for our mothers”). The phrase also used traditional theological language, taken from the Shabbat song “Lecha Dodi.” Finally, to reject the association of one aspect of the divine as male and another as female, we reversed the words in the second verse so that it became “The One who blessed our mothers, Source of Blessing for our fathers.”
The feminist concerns that led us to include women and a feminine aspect of the divine reflected a larger desire for the song to express the empowerment of those reciting and hearing the prayer. We wanted to be clear that the Source of Blessing is within us as well as around us, allowing us to be active agents of healing. So we asked for “the courage to make our lives a blessing” in addition to the more passive, traditional request to be blessed.
Because of the ceremony and community for which Debbie and I wrote “Mi Shebeirach,” we took it for granted that those singing it would think of themselves as well as others in their prayers for healing. As it became apparent that this was not always the case, Debbie insisted on singing the song twice in concert: first, individually, for those listening (“I’ll sing it first for you,” she would say) and only then in unison.
Debbie knew all too well that every one of us, simply by virtue of being human, experiences pain and brokenness and, therefore, we all need healing. Yet at the same time, she taught us all that our lives are a joyful blessing. Certainly, her life and her work continue to bless us.
Rabbi Drorah Setel is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and president of the Buffalo Board of Rabbis.