Aviva Zornberg on Debbie

Debbie, you who are so dear to all of us – You have taken leave of us and we are left bereft. From the other side of the world, I heard from Doug that in these last days you would wake from dreams of visiting many far away places. You wanted to know, 'Where we might go today?' And I was obscurely comforted by your dreams and by your readiness to travel.

Debbie, you and I – we came from different worlds. Eight years ago, I travelled to Australia and I met you one summer/winter at the Nahum Goldman Seminar. Mostly, we talked Torah. With the kookaburras as background music, we studied together some of the hassidic texts from my lectures. I was struck by your passion for learning, and your quest for the sacred. Then, we wrote to each other every week all these years. We talked Torah – your Torah, my Torah – for years.

In 2006, during the Lebanon war, you travelled to Tzefat and Jerusalem. Gradually, we began to bring other parts of our lives into our correspondence, parts that had to do quite immediately with what was on our minds at the moment of writing. You became sick. Two years ago, I travelled to Melbourne, of course, to see you. And during the time we spent together, you were energetic and bright-eyed. We wrote more personally, though always with a certain reserve, a sense of necessary boundaries. In a way, our Torah communication was the most personal part of what we wrote. For me, this was a unique correspondence. We wrote about books and films. We shared our apprehensions and our successes. I think we never missed a week. Till just recently, when you become too sick to write, and Doug wrote for you, so that I knew what was happening.

In all this travelling, you remained a far away place, which was very close to me. Like the Torah you loved, which is 'not in the heavens… nor across the sea … but very close to you,' your ardent soul was easy to connect with across the distance. How brave you were and how full of life! But your bravery grew out of a daily confrontation with fear and uncertainty. And your vitality was rooted in a deep knowledge of terror. In your poignant and truthful memoir,
Soul to Soul, you write about the role of fear in your life. You adopted something I once said about 'the principle of becoming, of allowing the possible to happen,' and you made it into your mantra. You lived with the sense of infinite possibility.

Inspired by the life and teaching of the Rebbe of Piacezna, who taught Torah from Holocaust Warsaw, you found hope and faith and the possibility of teaching some of the most powerful Torah of your life. Most of all, you wanted to be in touch with the God who transcends all diagnoses and prognoses. You wanted to know and to grow. And you did open yourself to the difficult revelations of your own specific life; and through them you grew in understanding and in love – for your family, your friends, your students.

Why did these last years have to be so painful? Who can know such things? And yet, when I think of your suffering, I think of one of the deepest teachings of the Piacezner Rebbe. In the dark fire of the Holocaust, he spoke of the God who suffers with us in our pain -Immo anochi be-tzara. This spoke to you. You wrote, 'In my moments of suffering I acutely feel the presence of God.' You felt this strange intimacy at such moments. And, in all the obscurity of the world, you came to find so much love.

Debbie –
Lechtech be-shalom; Lechtech le-shalom!  May your journey be in and to peace. We who admired and loved you – we pray that your ardent soul may find its true rest – Tehi nafshech tzerura be-tzror ha-chayim.

—Aviva Zornberg

Posted on August 1, 2011 .