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Building a Legacy: Of Tucson, Congresswoman Giffords, and Debbie Friedman

January 14, 2011

Building a Legacy: Of Tucson, Congresswoman Giffords, and Debbie Friedman:

This has been a traumatic week for our entire nation, as we reel from the events of the mass shooting in Tucson last Shabbat. With six lives lost, including the innocent, nine-year-old, Christina Green, and twelve others wounded, we are all stunned, shocked, and in pain.

The sensibilities of the Jewish community are affected this week as well, with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as the first Jewish congresswoman elected in Arizona. The Hebrew words “refuah shlemah:” a “complete recovery,” can be found all over the Internet as communities pray for her healing. And finally, we said goodbye on Tuesday to an icon in contemporary Jewish music, Debbie Friedman, who lost her fight with pneumonia last Sunday.

You, like me, might be wondering how to make sense of what took place last weekend. There is so much pain from the shattering of these many lives this week. Congresswoman Giffords, a woman who I have the privilege to know, whose commitment to good is her highest priority; who stands up for Israel and for civil rights for all people; whose honesty shone through every time I was in her presence, is still in our prayers. The murder of six innocent people, including District Judge John Roll, who committed his life to our country; and little, excited, Christina Green, tears at us and agonizes us to ask, “Why?” The passing of Debbie Friedman, whose music touched the lives of millions throughout the Jewish world – from all of this we are broken hearted.

For those of you unfamiliar with Debbie Friedman, her music brought contemporary melodies to age-old prayers. She brought life to the campsite and to Jewish congregations worldwide. Her example has inspired numerous other Jewish musicians today to create a new modern Jewish music, one filled with heart, personal relationship with God and a good beat. Her inspiration has literally changed the way we bring the spirituality of music into Jewish life. Her passing is a personal loss for me as well, for I knew Debbie and her music was part of my family’s Jewish journey for the last seventeen years.

One week filled with so much loss. The combined tragedy is felt communally and personally by millions upon millions.

How do we find comfort? One of the ways is through legacy. There was a memorial service streamed live Sunday night for Debbie Friedman. Her congregation sang out her songs with all their heart. A service that was initially designed to bring healing to Debbie while she was in the hospital became a pathway, after her passing, to help her spirit to ascend. The sound was very poor, but the ruach (spirit) of the music was incredibly healing. If you have a connection to Debbie’s music, and have not heard this, you can find it at Her funeral as well, was placed on ustream, at Among the moving eulogies, Craig Taubman and Josh Nelson sang two of her songs, these contemporary Jewish musicians adding a testament to the enormous impact that Debbie Friedman has had on the way we understand Jewish music today. Debbie’s legacy? To sing. To sing with all our hearts that which is begging to be sung.

And what of the events in Tucson?  I felt my first comfort regarding this horror as I listened to the words of President Obama; reminding us to tell those we love just how desperately we love them… every day. What better and bigger legacy can we leave than that? This world would grow by leaps and bounds if we spoke words of love each day. We could then extend that beyond our beloveds. What would it be like to walk through the day focusing on goodness and love, instead of frustration or judgment?

Our president also said that we can play a part in improving the lives of other people. This is precisely what the work of the Find Fulfill Flourish book and project are about. Like extending our love, it makes the world a better place. Finally, Presdient Obama said that we can honor the memory of the fallen by making better examples of ourselves. Improving the world begins at home. Excellent concepts, ones we can all follow.

We can also donate to the Christina Green Fund, a foundation organized by her family as her legacy, to  provide funds to impoverished children in Tucson. We can continue to pray for the healing of the wounded and the families of those murdered. A beautiful tie exists between Debbie Friedman and Gabby Giffords, the same tie that exists between Debbie and so many of us: her “Mi Sheberach” prayer for healing, likely her most well known melody, was sung by Congregation Chaverim in Tucson this past Sunday at a prayer services for Congresswoman Giffords. I imagine it will be sung this weekend in many more congregations throughout our nation.

A legacy can be transmitted after one’s death or during one’s lifetime. For those who were killed in Tucson, and for Debbie, their legacy is post mortem. For Gabby Giffords and the others who survived last week’s barbarous shooting, we can bring their legacy to life during their lifetimes. We can tell others we love them. Every day. We can help others. We can improve ourselves. And we can sing. Whether literally or metaphorically, we can sing the song that God put into our hearts, the special song that is ours alone to sing, bringing a bit more light into the world.

The ending line of Debbie Friedman’s “T’filat Haderech” melody, an apt title, for it is a prayer for the traveler, is:

“May this be our blessing, Amen.”

May it be so.

Robin Damsky

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