Mark Baker on Debbie

On Tuesday I went to visit Debbie in the hospice, having just returned from an overseas trip. I waited outside the door as Orly woke her to tell her she had a visitor. I didn’t know what to expect, what state of mind she would be in. ‘Marky Baker,’ she greeted me. They were her only words for the duration of my visit. She was too weak to speak. So the conversation was up to me. What do you say a person who is dying – a person to whom you’ve come to say your last goodbye? I fumbled for words. I told her first that her book had sold out in Melbourne and that I was desperate for a copy. I told her that in exasperation we’d asked my daughter who was in Israel to try to find one, which she did at Steimatzky’s. This pleased Debbie. She smiled at the thought that her book was selling internationally. What do I say next? I was nervous, uncomfortable. I took her hand from beneath the covers and held it. ‘Is it OK if I hold the rabbis hand?’ I asked. She smiled at that one too. I then tried to find more words. Silence. And then in a moment of awkwardness, I possibly said the wrong thing.

We had a pact, you see. It was a game that had been going on since her cancer was diagnosed four years ago. In those early months, she had difficulty breathing. I remember coming home from shul one day and saying, My God, she really is going to die. But the chemo solved the breathing problem, and she regained her strength. As September approached, I asked her to give the Kol Nidrei drasha in our shul. It meant a lot to her to be there to give the holiest of sermons. Those Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana services had found a sanctuary in her home between the days of Hamakom and Shira Hadasha. For years we had prayed there, turning her living room into the kodesh kodashim, the holy of holies, and retreating for breaks into her kitchen or the garden outside, where David, Orly and Ben roamed in this wonderful intersection between home and temple, the familial and formal.

In this first drasha after her cancer was diagnosed, I remember her setting down one of her most important teachings. It drew on a poem written after the First World War by Robert Graves. ‘There is one story,’ the poem begins, ‘and one story only that will prove worth your telling.’ For Debbie, that story was not the temporal one that is measured by the clocks of our own lives, but a larger meta-narrative, a sacred journey that repeats itself, over and over, like a Torah scroll that starts and finishes each year.

When I first met Debbie about twenty years ago as our neighbor in Caulfield, she hadn’t yet discovered this story or her power to discern it. She would dress in the clothes of a child of the 1960s CE, not BCE. I remember she used to talk about physics and the black holes of the universe, but she hadn’t yet linked these interests with Jewish writings. In her last book, Soul to Soul, she talks in a modest way about the journey that eventually led her to find the confidence to become a teacher of Jewish texts. But we all know that she was more than a teacher. Debbie had discovered the sacred narrative of life, and over time came to embody it for us. She didn’t so much reinvent herself as reimagine her suburban existence in a story that appeared to transcend life itself, assuming the proportions of a biblical character, and dare I say it, the voice not of a teacher, but of a prophet. If I speak in the abstract about Debbie, about the idea of Debbie, it’s not because she wasn’t a person of flesh and blood – a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher – but because everything in her life was inserted into this sacred story, in which the word and flesh became indistinguishable, and in which her voice gradually enveloped us in a revelation of fire.

Debbie was first diagnosed with cancer on Shavuot, the festival of revelation. And it quickly became apparent that the narrative she had chosen to live by was consuming her life. She had discovered the narrative through the writings of the Esh Kodesh, the holy fire of the Piazecner Rebbe who wrote his Torah commentaries in the Warsaw ghetto. From the pit of darkness, he observed the suffering of the world, clinging in his radical loneliness to the cleft of a rock from where he carved his commentaries in the presence of an impenetrable God.  Debbie’s commentaries on the Torah are written from that same rock. She lived the world of gilgulim, the circular stories of tortured souls passing like Moses through the wilderness, and yearning from those hard places of abandonment for connection and repair.

If God, as she wrote in her final email, writes the text and we are the commentary, then it had to be that she would die on this Shabbat Matot, about which she expounded exactly two years ago:

Hi Everyone, It's been a busy but enjoyable week. Fatigue is still an issue, but I gather it is an issue for many of us in the depths of this Melbourne winter (the sunny days are lovely though, and the rain is nourishing). … this week's double parsha brings us to the end of the Book of Numbers, and effectively to the end of the story, as most of Deuteronomy is a remembering of the journey. …This process is initiated, as Moses instructs the Israelites to look back over their 40 year journey and understand that, although it didn’t seem so at the time, every step had its place in the divine plan. May we come to know our own winding paths as treasured, sacred narrative.

At the end of her first Kol Nidrei drasha I said to her, start preparing for next year. She smiled. She had accepted the game. And in that year, her voice grew more fiery, her friendships and her words deepened. On that second Yom Kippur, she taught us the unforgettable lesson that grew from her first insight, that all of our lives are lived like a bird on a wire, on the thinnest wedge of the knife, always in the balance. As she spoke about the film Man on Wire, about the artist who had walked the tightrope between the New York skyscraper Babels that had been set on fire, she showed us how to balance our lives. She showed us what it means to live on that line under the axe of omnipresent death – between where we come from, a drop of water, and where we are going to, a place of maggots and worms – by living with the knowledge, the Daat, of lifnei mi atid lated din vecheshbon, before whom we have to give a reckoning.

From her kitchen armchair set by the light of her garden, Debbie helped many friends who came to visit her survive on that wire, and she guided and held onto those who had reached the end of the wire as she knew she would. Most of all, she showed us how to do it, how to balance the two ends by teaching us that there is no beginning and end, and that if you live death as you live life we have nothing to fear, and that once we let go of our fears, we can dance to the end of love and embrace the void which lies at the centre of the circle, in the black hole of the universe where creation and nothingness meet in what she would call, the divine kiss.

Don’t get me wrong; Debbie wanted to cling to that wire of life more than anything, to hold onto her children, David, Orly and Ben, her family and friends and nurture them as a mother, daughter, partner and a teacher. She was terrified of her cancer, but she understood that there was no safety net except for the webs of chesed we weave from ourselves to one another. ‘Next year!’ I told her after that drasha. ‘We need you to open up the gates for us.’ ‘Now, you’re being greedy,’ she answered. But there she was, one year later, against the odds thrown at her by the medicos in their white coats, and greeted instead at our shul on Yom Kippur by the angels in white gowns led by Orly, those cherubim and seraphim who surrounded her, including many of her Shira friends who are mourning on this day from Israel. And that was the drasha of a lifetime, the drasha in which she told us that her survival was no miracle, because she could not claim miracles for herself when others had been denied it. She taught us that year what it means to live under a mountain hanging from a thread of hair, or on the scales of our deeds, and to knock with all your spirit on heaven’s door until it could be pried open.

And so at the end of the drasha, I played my winning card. I told her once again, ‘Next year,’ as though she was Jerusalem. And this time, she didn’t say I was being greedy. She simply said, ‘There will be no next year.’ I left it there for a couple of months, and watched with all of you as her strength faded until one day a couple of months ago she called me and said. ‘I’ve written a book.’ ‘But…’ I started to say, realizing that I hadn’t understood how this woman of flesh and blood had become spirit, one of the great souls of our times, as Nathan said to me in an email last night, pure spirit, as Michael said, spirit who inspired us with the sight of one who saw things from the inside.

Soul to Soul: Writings From Dark Places, was her last drasha. The one she said she could not give this year.

Before I went overseas and we were talking about the launch, she asked me if I’d take some copies of her new book to Limmud in Sydney. But the books didn’t arrive on time, and so began a new phase in the sacred narrative, a new gilgul which she must have discerned, drawn from The Company of Words, her first book about her step-father’s dying days, who had written about his suffering servant, Job, and fought death until the book reached his hands. Debbie’s last days were days of waiting. She waited for her book, and when I left just before the launch, she was still concerned that the book hadn’t arrived. She had told me that with all her friends travelling overseas, maybe she would postpone the launch and hold it in the middle of July.

I faltered. I said to her, ‘No, it’s fine. You should do it immediately.’

And so when I returned home this week and went to visit her in the hospice on her last days, she must have known that I had pulled back the winning card. Our collusion had ended. I’d flinched and she knew it. I tried to take it back. My words were horribly wrong. In that moment of nervousness, after she greeted me on Tuesday, I said. ‘We need you for one more drasha.’ My heart sank as I saw her closed eyes clench even tighter around her sunken sockets, and a ripple of pain run across her face. Her narrative had ended. The white words on black fire had been consumed by total darkness. I let go of her hand. And silently I left the room.

At the doorway, I looked back one last time. She had turned her head and with one hand raised, she waved at me. She was still on the edge of the wire. She was telling me that goodbye doesn’t mean the end. That was the real drasha for this year, the understanding that she has given each of us through the eternal legacy of her commentaries and through the imprint of her tselem, her life soul, on our own life soul. Debbie made us realize we have a life soul.

And she taught us that we can open the gates without her. She was the one who taught me a long while ago that there are 49 gates that surround this world. ‘That’s what I’ll call my book,’ I said to her. ‘No, let me tell you about the fiftieth gate,’ she said. ‘The gate that is locked before us.’ ‘How do you open it,’ I’d asked. Debbie taught me: ‘The key to the gate is on the inside.’ ‘So how do you get inside?’ I wanted to know. In all her teachings, Debbie created the poetry of finding our way back to ourselves, our communities, and our narrative, through the secret passageway of our broken hearts. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That is the songline of the sacred narrative. The way to open heaven’s door is through the break in our world, the white space between words, the silence between our breaths, the sound of the shofar meeting a didgeridoo, the pinpoint of light between life and death.

‘In the end, as in the beginning,’ writes Debbie of the book of Devarim which we begin reading again in two weeks, ‘Moses is missing from the Book that bears his name. Drawn beyond text into the Breath of infinite depth, he is the emptiness that holds our world in place, the mystery at the heart of creation. He is buried where the image meets its Source, where the taking is so fierce it is a giving, the listening so deep it is a song.’

Our friend and teacher Debbie, Devorah, is now lying there behind the pine lid of a coffin. Astir et panai. She is hiding her face, but she is here right now, present in her absence, in her begged or, her rags of light, on that broken hill which summons us to sing a song of yearning for what we have lost and remembered inside the mystery of the one sacred story.

—Mark Baker

Posted on July 24, 2011 .