On Shabbat mornings, many congregations around the world, including ours, sing Mi Shebeirach, the song of healing composed by the late Debbie Friedman. I recently came across the story of how it came to be written.
As word spread that Debbie Friedman was gravely ill, people around the world prayed for her recovery. Many turned to the 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 in celebration of aging.
Marcia was a pioneer in researching alcoholism and other forms of abuse within the Jewish community. During the 1980s, she had suffered the profound loss of her husband. Her work with individuals who had suffered trauma and her own grief led Marcia 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. Marcia asked Debbie to create a prayer of healing for her ceremony.
Debbie shared the request with her friend Drorah Setel and the two collaborated on the blessing. In working with the words of the Mi Shebeirach prayer, they were concerned with several issues. First and foremost, at that time was the growing AIDS crisis, which affected many who were part of their extended family of friends. How, they wondered, could they use words asking 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 also contrary to the Jewish prohibition against knowingly praying for something in vain. They 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. They kept the rabbinic phrase refuah sh’leima (complete healing), but redefined it as the “renewal,” rather than the repair, of body and spirit. The second issue was their 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, they added the words M’kor Habracha L’imoteinu (Source of Blessing to our mothers”). They reversed the words in the second verse so that it became “The One who blessed our mothers, Source of Blessing for our fathers.” Finally, they wanted to be clear that the Source of Blessing is within each of us as well as around us, allowing us to be active agents of healing. So we ask for the “courage to make our lives a blessing” in addition to the more passive, traditional request to be blessed.
When Debbie sang the song at her concerts, she would always sing it twice: first, she sang alone for all those listening (“I’ll sing it first for you,” she would say) and only then would she invite the audience to sing it with her. Debbie knew all too well that every one of us, simply by virtue of being human, experiences pain and brokenness and therefore, we are all in need healing. Yet at the same time, she taught us that our lives are a joyful blessing. Certainly, her life and her work continue to bless us.
Cantor Alan Sokoloff