Debbie’s Next Teaching
Joe Septimus is a Wexner Heritage Alumnus from New York IV. Joe presented this piece at a Memorial Service for Debbie Friedman held at Central Synagogue on January 27, 2011. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Debbie was my friend. Not the famous Debbie Friedman, who inspired a generation. But the private one; humble, vulnerable loving and funny. The one at our family shabbos table. The one who enjoyed being in my orthodox shul, because nobody there knew who she was. The one who would chuckle and say – isn’t it a riot that I’m Debbie Friedman.
Debbie was my chavruta. We studied and taught Torah together. She was humbled to receive and give Torah, allowing the text of the Talmud, to seep into her mind, and overtake her very being. Be it about blessings, prayer, Chanuka candles, or grieving, she processed Torah’s wisdom and it nourished her soul. She became more Debbie than before.
We studied a teaching in Talmud Brachos together that Debbie obsessed over, because it highlighted extreme sensitivity by juxtaposing harsh imagery. The last time we spoke, Debbie told me that she planned to study it this semester with her HUC students. She never got that chance. Permit me to fulfill her wish, and share her teaching for her.
The Talmud teaches that two random individuals that enter a prayer space concurrently to pray their personal prayers, become connected.
Tractate Brachot page 5B:
It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says: When two people enter [a Synagogue] to pray, and one of them finishes his prayer first and does not wait for his fellow but leaves, his prayer is torn (from) before his face (Torfin lo’Tfilaso B’Fanav)…. And more so, he causes the Shechina (Divine Presence) to remove itself from Israel….
Four aspects of this passage intrigued Debbie:
1. That we are not just linked by communities of choice, but sometimes, just because our paths cross. We are expected to share concern for, and find commonality with the random other; provide him with our most precious resource, our time. By waiting for him, we make his needs important to us, and minimize his aloneness.
2. The outcome of our personal prayer is determined not only by our fervor and sincerity, but also by the loving kindness we extend to our fellow. Maybe that’s why Debbie always prayed for us first.
3. In rejecting the prayer of the self-centered petitioner the Talmud does not utilize its usual legal language. Utilizing the image of ripping his prayer from in front of his face, the Talmud assaults his very being – the face being a metaphor for the person. (Debbie would repeat over and over “Torfin lo’Tfilaso b’Fanav”). We learn, that by being self-centered, we violate not only our privilege to pray, but our very humanness.
4. God resides in our midst as our ultimate neighbor, as Shechina, from the Hebrew word Shachain, meaning neighbor. When we are at our human best, “all around us is Shechina”. But Shechina leaves the neighborhood of the self-centered. To keep God in the neighborhood requires acts of devout humanness.
For me Debbie’s legacy is to see God on the face of our fellow. To give and receive strength and joy, from each encounter. This Talmudic teaching is so Debbie.
Debbie was my friend, my chavrusa. The one who was able to look into my heart and soul, and allowed me to look into hers. She was a blessing in my life. May her inspiration, her prayers, her songs and her Torah continue to be a blessing for us all.