Rabbi Ralph Genende on Debbie

Several years ago Debbie shared this story with her kehillah as part of her Kol Nidrei drasha. It is a tale from the treasure house of the great Hassidic story teller Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav. The story she told was about a mountain spring of pure water. This spring existed beyond the world, beyond time. Far away from the mountain spring, deep inside time, was the heart of the world. The heart yearned for the spring, it burned for it, but whatever it tried to traverse the distance between them, it lost its way, because the closer it came to the mountain upon which the spring dwelt, the more perspective it lost, and the less it could see of it. The yearning, burning heart of the world was doomed to remain far from the object of its desire, the spring of pure water.

At close of each day, when darkness approached, the heart would sing farewell to the spring, and when the spring heard the sad song, it would respond with a beautiful melody of its own. The dying of each day was filled with the call of the broken heart and the response of the spring of pure water; their music filled the world, and thus another day was born.

Rebbe Nachman called each day a new song, born of the death of the previous day. Each day has its own unique melody. The cry of the broken heart, he said, is the source of the greatest blessing of them all; the gift of a brand new day.

Debbie Masel knew too intimately the cry of that wounded heart; the yearning of a broken body. She also understood with immeasurable insight the melody of that stream, the pellucid clarity of its waters, the depth of its murmuring soul, its unfathomable מים חיים.

She knew about suffering and she knew about the vital life-giving river of Torah. She discovered not only the music of each new day, but also how to share it, how to put it into words; how to articulate the ache of her singular heart, how to express the beauty and energy of Torah. And how to open the eyes of others to the dappled, desperate beauty of each brand new day, each new text of Torah she was teaching.

Debbie may have come to Torah late in her life, when she was almost 40, but she came to it with a vengeance, a passionate intensity. As she put it: “Words had always called me, but never like this. These words didn’t just stir and touch, they stirred a memory, touched a boundary…through the prism of the mystic Hassidic commentators…I saw my world and my place in it with fresh eyes, as if for the first time.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne, speaks about the dimensions of wisdom. It has, he says, a three-fold connotation. Firstly innate intelligence; secondly erudition or the accumulation of knowledge and thirdly intellectual curiosity. Debbie possessed חכמה at all three levels. She had a wonderful mind sharp as a razor, sensitive to nuance and attuned to paradox. As her Mum, Helen points out in her vocational tests in New Jersey she got the highest ever recorded score for an aptitude for law.

Beside her innate talents, she accumulated an astonishing amount of knowledge: she knew poetry, she knew literature, she had a predilection for modern theoretical physics picked up from her stepfather whom she greatly admired, David Wolfers. She also knew Torah, chassidut, Kabbalah and of course the Ishbitzer. She was probably one of the few individuals in the world to really understand the writings of the martyred Rebbe of Piacezna, Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira. She not only edited his most famous work אש קדש The Sacred Fire, but as her mentor of the past ten years and our mutual teacher for the past three years, Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman remarked “She was plugged directly into his mind. She inspired us to see the chasidut that we diligently studied together from the perspective of the feminine spirit of Miriam’s spring bubbling up from the ground.”

Debbie also possessed in heaps that third component of wisdom – intellectual inquisitiveness; she was curious to know, had an unquenchable thirst for Torah in depth and an uncanny ability and drive to find outstanding teachers of Torah: Rabbi Hoffman, Aviva Zornberg who recognised in Debbie “a rare and passionate truthfulness a rich humanity and a profound engagement with her faith”, her teacher-friend Yitzchak Haviv, her Lubavitch Kabalah teacher, David Tsapp. Aviva sent the following message:

“Debbie from the other side of the world, I heard from Doug that in these last days you would wake from dreams of visiting many faraway places. You wanted to know, “Where we might go today?” and I was obscurely comforted by your dreams and by your readiness to travel…

In all this travelling, you remained a faraway place, which was very close to me. Like the Torah you loved, which is ‘not in the heavens…nor across the sea…but the 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…

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 G-d who suffers with us in our pain. This spoke to you. You wrote: “In my moments of suffering I acutely feel the presence of G-d.” You felt this strange intimacy at such moments. And, in all of the world, you came to find so much love.”

She was able to discover these teachers because in her words “Chochma (wisdom) is as the Zohar say, Koach Mah ‘the power of what’, of allowing oneself to be empty, to not know…a saying I heard in a totally different context, years before I discovered Torah, took on a new meaning: I used to be a moron, then I became an idiot, and now I am working on becoming a complete fool. This is the whole journey from dispassionate intellect to mindful heart – from thinking one knows everything to knowing one knows nothing.”

Of course, what these words of Debbie also remind us is that Debbie was not a saint or a detached intellectual. She was a real and vital human being all too aware of her feelings and failings, recognising the harsh, bruising reality of relationships and what Yeats called the ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart where all the ladders start.’

For David, Orlee and Ben she was their very chilled mum, accepting, caring, guiding and fretting about them, reading David’s university papers, being there for Orlee as she did when she saved her as a child from a wilful pony, helping her Benny write that letter to release him from a traffic fine. David, Orlee and Ben, I want you to know she may have been laid back but she loved you ferociously. You were always top of her mind during these past years, as you were Helen. She worried constantly about you worrying about her.

For her siblings and half-siblings she was the adventurous, daring one, creative, surrounded by friends, with a sense of fun – in their words: “She grabbed life and extracted happiness from it”. She retained a good relationship with her former husband, Jack and his wife Pauline and would joke that in Pauline she had the best wife-in-law.

And then there was Doug, her best friend, her עזר כנגדה , the one who more than anyone else understood the sorrow and anguish of her changing face; Doug who schlepped her to and from those dreadful treatments; Doug who shared her Jerusalem muse (and we will hear their Jerusalem poems shortly).

Debbie not only enjoyed the company of words, she loved the companionship of her friends and the camaraderie of her Shira Chadasha community. We, her friends, feel as bereft as Rabbi Yochanan when his chavruta, his study partner, Reish Lakish died and he cried out: “Where are you, oh son of Lakish…” Where are you, oh Devorah, daughter of Chana.

On Friday, 1 July, Parshat Chukat, Debbie sent what I believe is her last email to her students, called the Mystic Kiss. In it she wrote: “Only I can determine how I will respond to vicissitude because my happiness or otherwise is in my hands. G-d writes the text of my life, but I write the commentary”.

‘This week in Parashat Chukat, siblings Miriam and Aharon come to the end of their lives. Miriam’s passing gets one line. Aharon’s takes nine verses. Many centuries later, Rashi noted that while Aharon, like Moses, died ‘at the mouth of G-d’ the same is not said of Miriam. Rashi’s rather surprising explanation is that for G-d to be seen “kissing Miriam would not be respectful of the was on High.” G-d can give Moses and Aharon the mystic kiss, but to be seen reaching down and kissing their sister Miriam would involve some kind of divine embarrassment! Many centuries after Rashi, in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Rebbe of Piaceszna gave us a beautiful interpretation of this strange remark. It was seemly for men to give G-d the ‘mystic kiss’ because G-d always reaches down to men, giving them Torah and mitzvot. Women, as “others”, in their yearning to learn Torah, reach up, and draw it down. But Miriam reached up and kissed G-d, drawing Torah down.’

This piece of Torah was her favourite in Aish Hakodesh; it’s also about her life and the unique feminine way of channelling Torah. The brevity of the Torah’s description also underscores the unbearable anguish of her passing; a loss that leaves Moses lost and forgetting what he knew so well – she had been the one who knew how to draw water and life and blessing from the intractable, how to extract sweetness from the seemingly hard and obdurate below. Without her Moses was lost; he didn’t know how to speak to a rock.

Devorah guided by her martyred mentor learned how to find the radiance concealed in the darkness, the sweetness embodied in the hardness, the melody in the harsh light of the new day. In Rabbi Hoffman’s words: “If anyone sees Devorah’s rock please tell me so I can again sense her waters bubbling up from the ground.”

I know where I will look in the commentaries she wrote, In tof in שיר השירים in the words she carried into the souls of her loved ones, in the teachings she etched into the hearts of all us who were blessed to have met her.

Shalom, dear friend, or in Aviva’s words: “Debbie – lechtech beshalom; lechtech leshalom! 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 tzerurah betzror hachayim.

—Ralph Genende

Posted on August 1, 2011 .