Posts tagged #Debbie Masel

Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman on Debbie

I can't possibly write about her as eloquently as she wrote about our studies together. She found me as a study partner 10 years ago by googling "Ishbitz teacher". She is the only one whoever made that google entry. It was beshert guided by the hand of our teacher the Aish Kodesh. We studied together almost every Thursday morning, Melbourne time for 10 years. During the last 2 years Rabbi Genede joined us. It seems fitting that she found out about the cancer and she died on a Thursday morning. Devorah told me 3 weeks ago that her favorite Aish Kodesh was Chukat 1942. I have taken great pains to teach this piece in honor of Devorah during the last 3 weeks both in Denver and in Israel as my students can attest. The piece is about Miriam's death. She reached up and kissed Hashem when she died. She got credit for all of her initiative in Torah study because she was a woman. Men don't get credit for their study because they are commanded. Women get full credit for their Torah because the are not commanded. Moshe couldn't teach after Miriam died and that's why he hit the rock. Miriam taught him how to walk into his mistake and leave the camp alone and go to Baal Peor to die alone. Only then, when Moshe followed Miriam, did Moshe become Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher.Only the could he again connect masculine waters to the feminine waters.

Devorah was the feminine water for Ralph and I. She inspired me to see the chasidut that we diligently studied together from the perspective of Miriam's water bubbling up from the ground. The Aish Kodesh wrote her eulogy in 1942. I can do no better. If anyone sees Miriam's/ Devorah's rock please tell me so that I can again feel her waters bubbling up from the ground. I have no doubt that Devorah also got credit for all her Torah and died reaching up to kiss Hashem.

—Henoch Dov Hoffman

Posted on August 21, 2011 .

Poem for Debbie

On the day Debbie died,
we could hear it,
entropy taking over matter,
matter advancing over mind,
a radiant object falling away,
an intricate sand castle absorbed by the sea,
nothing and something finally wedded,
the Black Hole that charmed your youth
finally swept you away.

During your dying,
You stood for us twice on Kol Nidrei eve,
How we gasped to see you stride out,
a towering Miriam robed in white
a pathfinder in unknown lands
balancing on a high wire
not looking down once

In your teaching,
you teased and you prodded,
sent us wandering around mazes,
searching for heavenly clues
you spun us in circles
till we were breathless, dizzy
in your celestial carousel
we lost our earthly bearings.

Then you brought us home,
covered us with messages like a mother with kisses,
pinning them all over our lives like sticky notes.

You lived your struggle in public,
not sliding by degrees to a demise, 
withdrawing like a wounded animal waiting,
or an Eskimo bound for snow. Instead,
you came to our windowless shule
where prayers shed the only light,
let us see you stumble
wrote commentary all the way,
kept on with your singing, always
seeking the best harmonic line
to G-d’s defective song
even when He was tetchy,
you did not let Him steal the solo,
you did not surrender,
nor wrestle Him away

This is what we saw.
Every Shabbat you brought the name of a sick one
not yourself, every week
the journey to the bimah,
and the dozing in the backroom,
grew longer,

how frail we are
how hard it is for us to reach out for even one moment
to keep on caring
to not smile in the course of a funeral,
and if a tear should form in the corner of an eye,
to know for whom it really falls.

I was almost a friend, more an admirer
I write this poem while others weep
In your last days, you gave Andrew a chocolate
wrapped in silver, you said it was for me,
to help with my work,
a sweet remembrance

the closest thing we have to G-d
is each other.

Sadly we hand you back to the void.
We go back to our lives and our skipping ropes,
and translating His sentences ourselves,
we hope with an ardent hope (Rabbi Ralph called you ardent)
that the One you told us about
waits for you

—Lynette Chazan (Wirth)

Posted on August 1, 2011 .

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 .

Sahananda on Debbie

My Step-Sister Debbie died sometime last night of cancer on the other side of the world.

I suppose I knew Debbie best when we were both teenagers.  I don’t actually remember first meeting her, but for a while she lived in London with David, Helen,  Danny and later Aviva.  She was only fifty miles from where I was living in Cambridge and I got to see quite a lot of her.

Thinking about Debbie brings back a raft of memories of the flats in Moscow Road; the constant sound of dripping water out the back, and the city smells and sounds of Bayswater.  Inside the flat the smell of last night’s whisky and cigarettes.

For about six years Debbie was a big part of my life, and in some ways, despite being a younger sister was very influential to me.  I think her easy friendship and sense of fun helped me out of a rather grim part of my life and brought a bit of sunshine to my disposition.

I had lived a rather sheltered life for a teenager, and Debbie introduced me to the importance of Jeans, the music of Bob Dylan and Cat Stephens, and I’m not sure about this, but I think also encouraged me to play guitar which I still enjoy to this day.

I have many happy memories of staying in Moscow Road, and Debbie and I would take Aviva to the park so that we could smoke surreptitious cigarettes.

I have always felt that Debbie grabbed life and extracted happiness from it.  She was creative, and I remember her poetry and writing, but she was also adventurous.  She had a lot of friends who she was happy to share.

Later, when the family moved to America, I spent a very happy summer with her and Karen Swirsky in Leonia, Debbie again sharing her friends and spurring the two of us on to adventures.

Sadly, we have been separated by continents much of the rest of our lives.  I have seen her on, I reckon, three occasions in the last thirty years, but when we have seen each other there has always been an instant reconnection.

I feel I know her quite well from her books, which I feel express her in a stark and honest way.

The last time I saw Debbie was eleven years ago, she was a bit fraught over some domestic difficulty, and we took the dog for a long walk and I was happy to be her sounding board.

I love Debbie, and I am sad that she has died and that there won’t be another chance to take the dog for a walk and have a chat.


Posted on August 1, 2011 .

Dena Lester on Debbie

Debbie had a small group of very close girlfriends – I am honored to have been one of them and that is why I am making this speech.

We met in Israel 29 years ago at breakfast in my kitchen by accident.  I saw this tall, beautiful, skinny and tanned girl with a head of thick shiny black hair, an enormous even white smile and dark burning eyes.  I was immediately fearful that my husband, Jonathan would fall in love with her.

Thus in that spirit of challenge, began our adventurous and exciting friendship.

I have been privileged to witness Debbie in many forms:

Debbie the wild and independent young woman – investigative, ambitious, tumultuous and excessively interesting.

Debbie the new wife  – keeping an orderly apartment and tight budget in Agrippas Street, Jerusalem while taming her frenetic husband Jack who kept us all doubled up in laughter with his crazy antics.

The struggling writer - Punching out words on a noisy typewriter, looking hard for the content of the stories she was so driven to tell.

Debbie the mother – nurturing her children as babies, toddlers and youngsters in the best way she could.  I can still see her pregnant – glowing and shiny, ripe and feminine.

Some of my happiest years were those that we shared raising our six children.  The chaos and laughter and even craziness of that atmosphere has etched itself permanently in our children’s psyche’s and on mine.  I miss those days so much. 

The Shabbat dinners with Debbie, Jack, my late husband Jonathan and I – our kids running wild as Jack terrified them with his psychotic chasing game called Stalker which would all end in hysterical laughter (and sometimes tears…).

I loved our discourse, it was never boring.  We raised our children while talking philosophy, theology, psychology, politics and mysticism.  Rare were our conversations about nappies, the best schools, other people or what we wanted to buy next.

In our 30’s we were both drawn on different paths into mysticism.  As her books describe, hers was a deep enquiry whose gifts of knowledge were not endowed without cost.

On her path of fire Debbie immersed herself in a fury of learning – how to daven, how to read classical Hebrew, Aramaic and Rabbinical commentaries.  I was astonished as I had learnt Hebrew and prayer at a religious school and even was frum as a teen, but she had it all wrapped up in a short number of years.  Her intelligence and intellect were simply hard to grasp.  She indeed had a very great mind.

As if under a spell, she was on a mission to penetrate the depths of the deeper meaning of our heritage – a task that consumed and absorbed her.

Her mission was not always pretty – nothing comes from nothing and it was necessary to enter the darkest of spaces and experiences to find the light, to create the alchemical gold from the burning of her base metals.

While all of that drama was going on, the house was kept in order, the children attended school, the dogs were walked around the park daily and the sun kept rising in the safe and comfortable suburb of Caulfield with its contemporary post holocaust renaissance architecture as we would joke.

I have thus come to believe that the greatest stories emerge from the most mundane environments.

It was in these years of internal turbulence that she found her purpose as a teacher of Torah – not just the Torah of words, but the Torah of the heart.  The Torah of self transformation, the Torah of correct behavior, the Torah of conscious living, the Torah of Acceptance and the Torah of truth.

This is the Torah that belongs to the world and that is why she had a following of so many people from so many backgrounds and even different religions.

Then out of the blue she got sick.

I can still remember every detail of that phone call.

Over the past 4 and a half years since that call, Debbie has been dealing with the cancers that eventually ended her life last week.

This final chapter of her story,  painful as it is, represents the time where her personality evolved and transformed in a most unbelievable way.

As the cancer grew and spread, any negative view of the world and people that she may have held, started to diminish.  She came to understand almost everyone and judge almost no one – a huge achievement for any human being. 

After a couple of years she could even clearly sit present in the moment – forgetting her predicament – a goal that sounds so simple but is almost impossible, honestly, for most of us to attain.

She became so compassionate – as spoken in her close friend Sari’s words last night – despite her pain and suffering, she became more concerned with the pain and suffering of others.

As her body became less mobile and energetic her heart opened wider letting all of our vulnerabilities become rendered irrelevant.

I loved the way she enjoyed listening to my problems, totally immersed in the trivial details of my daily issues and grievances as if they were as important as her own serious trials.

As the disease in her body, mutated and morphed into all kinds of horrible sicknesses, I began to call her Job – to her face of course – because she just seemed to receive more and more – enduring  the suffering with acceptance and resignation.  Mostly peaceful in her powerlessness.

She told me many times that she was ready to die and not afraid.

There are two moments in our friendship that will always be burned in my memory.

One was when my husband Jonathan was laying in a sudden coma in hospital.  We, two naturally non-demonstrative friends who rarely hugged or emoted in public were on the balcony near the intensive care unit.  We were entwined in each other’s arms, on our knees, tears pouring out of our eyes, crying out loud to Hashem and petitioning Him with prayer.  Please, we wailed, please make Jonathan better; we will do anything you ask…  But because it was his time the answer was silence, however, I will never forget that moment of union with her and how deeply she cared.

The second was on the day she was admitted into hospital a few weeks ago – I held her hand and she squeezed my finger looking directly into my eyes with a mixture of trepidation and sweet compassion – her eyes were saying I am sorry, but I have to do the job of dying now.  I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

I am so very grateful for Debbie and I will always love her very much.

As much as I will miss her though, I am relieved that she has finally been freed from the bondage of that body.

I offer thanks to Doug and her other close friends who were so present for her in the way that she needed over the past years.  May you be blessed and showered with light.

I pray that all of her family, especially her beautiful children David, Booji and Benny will grow strong and great through the adversity of the untimely loss of their mother, sister and daughter. 

She would want nothing more than to see you all live lives of purpose, usefulness and integrity in which ever fields you choose.  I know well that you all will.

Right now in my fantasies – Debbie is looking down from up high in flowing white robes with an after life body glowing with spirit.  Maybe even right now Jonathan has joined her and they are having a chuckle at my expense as the tears stream down my face in the world of the living.

—Dena Lester

Posted on August 1, 2011 .

Esther Takac on Debbie

Debbie was a beloved teacher, inspiring speaker, passionate writer. Others have and will speak of her many talents. But I speak here tonight of Debbie as a wonderful friend.

Debbie and I met in Jerusalem, the city we both loved.  Both interested in the written word we agreed that the streets of Jerusalem breathe and invoke poetry - the cobbled pathways, the olive and fig trees, the cityscape of minarets and church spires, the density of peoples, and hopes and dreams and hurts.

But we both returned to live our lives in Melbourne and most of our friendship took place in the comfort and conventionalism of Caulfield. In fact in the last twenty years of our friendship we have barely shared any time outside Caulfield, bar a trip to Confest in Northern Victoria. As Debbie would joke one risked getting lost anywhere north of Dandenong Rd.

But, and that was part of her richness, my friendship with Debbie stretched our lives way beyond the routine of our Caulfield suburban lives, the domesticity of our days as mothers of young children and then working mothers running households.

Debbie’s mind and heart were open to the enormity of the world, in all its complexity and richness. I remember trips to the supermarket, often with toddlers in tow, where our conversations ranged wide and deep. I sometimes wondered what other shoppers might have made of the topics we discussed between the freezer section and the toilet paper.

And so too, many evenings as the orchestrated chaos of family dinners beckoned, we kept each other company, cradling the phone on our shoulder, trying to avoid neck ache, as we cut the onions and chopped the salads, sharing our day, all the while our words taking us far beyond the confines of our kitchens.

We loved to walk – along the beach – in any sort of weather, surrounded by the crash of the waves, the stretch of the skies, talking, always talking through the issues of our days.

And around Caulfield Park – that circle of green that holds the secrets of so many – around again and again and again. We promised to meet at out special spot – the inside of the inside – because yes Debbie knew how to laugh at herself and see the funny side of her own serious interests in kabbalah and mysticism.

So what did we discuss as we walked the beach, the park, the streets, the phone wire? What didn’t we discuss?

Our husbands and partners and when we loved them and when they drove us crazy.
Our siblings and parents and when we loved them and when they drove us crazy.
Our children when they flourished and brought us naches and joy.
And our children when they struggled and brought us angst and sleepless nights.
And so David and Booji and Ben, I heard your mum worry about each of you in turn, the focus of her concern and energy and anxiety.
And I also know how proud she has felt – of each of you finding your own way in the world, managing thru these last difficult years.

And when I looked across at you three sitting side by side at your mother’s funeral I saw three beautiful young people that I know she loved very much.  As she herself writes: David with your tall intellect and open hearted naivety. Orly quick minded and quick tempered, petite and fiery. And Benny, always her baby, broad shouldered, handsome with a heart of liquid gold.         

But I have gotten off the track. We spoke of many other things – writing and books and creativity and the fickle world of publishing. When my book won an award, it was Debbie most of everyone who understood its significance and rejoiced for me and with me.

And we spoke of Jewish learning and Torah and Kabbalah and Avivah Zornberg. And Israel and the Middle East. And Hamakom and Shira Hadasha and what makes community. And she spoke of the new physics and I listened but didn’t really understand. And I was always aware she had an amazing mind, and a beautiful gift with words.

But as much as all that she was also a loyal and generous friend.
When my father Sam died 10 years ago, by his own hand, Debbie was there for me, to  walk the streets and the beach and the park and help me come to some understanding, some acceptance of the event. We both knew we shared non mainstream parents with shards of grandeur and dysfunctionality.

And together with her Torah and her spirituality and her insights that were real and genuine, she also had a wild and dare I say wicked side, a playfulness and sense of humor. It was only 2 weeks ago in her hospital room that Leonard Cohen was playing “I’m your Man” and Debbie on her way to the toilet, danced seductively across the room. Full of courage in the face of her illness.

Debbie was full of life, with a generosity of spirit and a breadth of vision. An appreciation of the dappled nature of life, the light and the dark, the joy and the pain. And that is what made sharing a friendship with her so textured and precious, so rich.     

Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget. I will miss her deeply.  I already do.   

—Esther Takac

Posted on August 1, 2011 .

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 .

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 .