In the Cleft of the Rock Deborah Masel cover
In the Cleft of the Rock
Deborah Masel

Sensuously evocative, these images inform an associative language in which paradox and mystery give birth to unforeseen wisdom
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
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Deborah spoke on The Torah through Paintings and Poetry and appeared in a panel discussion with Victor Majzner, Deborah Masel, Rosemary Crumlin and Helen Light focusing on the visual depiction of the Torah.

Book Description

Here is the heart of the matter, the quintessence of desire. We do not flee, we do not chase. Here we sit and wait with wilderness in our mouths where once was heavenly breast. Here in the stillness of the watch, in a whirl of desert wind, we sit and learn the sacred art of travelling.

Deborah Masel’s meditations on the Five Books of Moses come  from deep study, yet they are effusive. The dialogue between the ancient text and the modern writer is dramatic. As she says herself, ‘We are brought out to tell the story, and through the telling we are brought out.’ Her insights lift us to a realization of how we may live now.

A timeless and timely commentary written from the cleft of the heart. Masel’s words shatter old stones to reveal new meanings through a journey that soars from dazzling heights to a place of mystery that lies beyond life and death.
Mark Baker, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation

Deborah Masel in this extraordinary collection of prose poems cuts to the depth and uncovers the throbbing, achingly beautiful heart of the Torah.
Rabbi Ralph Genende

Drawing from a rich imaginative knowledge of midrashic and hassidic commentary on the Bible, she creates a personal mythology of death and life, darkness and light, void and meaning. Passionately searching, her words draw together fragments of hidden beauty.
Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

ISBN 9781876044640
Published 2009
228 pgs
In the Cleft of the Rock book sample

CD included with selected readings
narrated by Rachael Kohn
music by Adam Starr

In the Cleft of the Rock bookmark/CD listing

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The Five Books of Moses

The Book of Genesis   

Bereshit : Deep Things Out of Darkness
Noach : When Water Meets Water
Lech Lecha : The Awakening
VaYera : Journey to the Mountain of Sight
Chayay Sarah : Women and Torah
Toledoth : The Changeling
VaYetze : Jacob the Jazzman of Genesis
VaYishlach : Poetry and Pragmatics
VaYeshev : Judah and Joseph, Two Paths to Redemption
Miketz : Dreams Within Dreams Within Dreams
VaYigash : Deep Calls to Deep
VaYechi : The Imagination’s Life

The Book of Exodus

Shemot : Depravity and Dignity
VaEra : Hear, My people, and I will speak
Bo : From Darkness to Great Light
BeShalach : Songlines
Yitro : Walking with Angels
Mishpatim : Law and Metaphor
Terumah : The Power of Negative Space
Tetzaveh : Prophecy and Posterity
Ki Tissa : Between the Essence and the Descent
VaYakhel/Pekudey : The Song of Creation

The Book of Leviticus

VaYikra : Smoke and Glory
Tsav : Words on Fire
Shemini : The Fruit and the Fire
Tazria/Metzorah : Who Will Buy the Elixir of Life?
Acharei Mot/Kedoshim : L’Chaim, To Life!
Emor : The Sound of Silence
BeHar/BeChukotai : Letting Go and Letting God

The Book of Numbers

B’Midbar : Codes of Redemption
Naso : Drink
BeHa’alotecha : The Art of Travelling
Sh’lach : Seeing and Believing
Korach : A Wish Fulfilled
Chukat : Elegy
Balak : Flooded With Love
Pinchas : This above All
Matot/Masay : Speaking Spirit

The Book of Deuteronomy

Devarim : The Breath and the Word
VaEtchanan : Wings of Prayer
Ekev : Not By Bread Alone
Re’eh : The Greatest Gift
Shoftim : The Time of Singing has Come
Ki Thetze : Into this World of Cruel Wonder Sent
Ki Thavo : Until this Day
Netzavim-VaYelech : Through a Glass Darkly
Ha’azinu : Hard Rain
V’Zot Haberachah : Where the Image meets its Source

Festivals and Fast Days

Passover : A Different Night
Passover : The Neverending Story
Lag b’Omer
Shavuot : The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Shavuot : Living Waters
Tisha b’Av
Rosh Hashannah
Yom Kippur
Tu B’Shevat
Purim : A World Beyond Miracles
Purim : A Taste of the World to Come

Journey to the Torah

“Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it”

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By Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Deborah Masel’s work is vitally haunted. Haunted by texts and images, which achieve their own life in her prose poems. Drawing from a rich imaginative knowledge of midrashic and hassidic commentary on the Bible, she creates a personal mythology of death and life, darkness and light, void and meaning. Passionately searching, her words draw together fragments of hidden beauty.

I met Debbie in 2003 at the Nahum Goldman seminar in Melbourne. She was in the early stages of a new career as a teacher of Torah. Avid for learning, she sought out every opportunity, including weekly telephone study sessions with teachers in the US and encounters with visiting scholars. I was impressed by her passion and by her literary sensibility and we began a weekly email correspondence which continues till now. We write mostly, but not entirely, about our work on the weekly Parsha. Over the years, I have witnessed Debbie’s maturing authority, as she has become a beloved and respected teacher of Torah, affecting increasingly large audiences with her resonant poetic voice.

Now, we have an opportunity to read a collection of Debbie’s written reflections on the Parsha. These were written in tandem with her oral presentations. They represent in condensed and often brilliant form the nodal images that emerge from the midrashic literature. Sensuously evocative, these images inform an associative language in which paradox and mystery give birth to unforeseen wisdom. Here, Wallace Stevens, Thomas Mann, and Bob Dylan find themselves in a new world. And here, the inner life of a complex modern Jewish woman reaches out to many other lives seeking for more life.

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Launch Photos


Deborah Masel’s In the Cleft of the Rock; Writings on the Five Books of Moses was launched at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University by Sam Lipski AM and Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg on 23 August 2009. 

Sam Lipski launching Deborah Masel In the Cleft of the Rock photo

Sam Lipski AM

Mark Baker launches Deborah Masel In the Cleft of the Rock photo

Mark Baker


What To Say To Suffering and Death
ABC Radio National, The Spirit of Things, 14 August 2011

Deborah Masel was a a Jewish spiritual teacher in Melbourne whose gifted interpretation of the Torah gained many accolades, yet she wrote In the Cleft of the Rock and Soul to Soul while dying of a brain tumor. This program contains part of a memorial service by Rabbi Ralph Genende, and an excerpt of Debbie’s conversation with Rachael last year.

Rachael Kohn: Debbie taught adults Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. She was inspired by Jewish mysticism and was a gifted poet. Her book of prose poems In the Cleft of the Rock was soon followed by Soul to Soul, her personal account of living with aggressive cancer. Rabbi Ralph Genende remembers her at the minyan, the prayer service that took place after the seven-day mourning period called shiva.

Ralph Genende: We’ve reached the final minyan, the shiva ends with and on Shabbat. Just a week ago Debbie was with us, now we’re left with recorded words, images, memories, and I know that we would rather have her warm smile, her voice articulating those crystal words, her compelling presence.

Debbie was a real Devorah, her Hebrew name. We believe that’s not by chance, Devorah was one of the great prophets of the Hebrew people and Debbie was a modern-day prophet with an acuity of vision, and her mind was like a searchlight that uncovered and illuminated so many dark layers of texts.

And like Devorah, she sat under her palm tree, and Debbie sat under her palm, the Kabbalistic tree of life, it’s over there, and drew down the chochma, the bina, the da’at, and the other dazzling sephirot. And like Devorah she was a feminine leader of un-daunting courage and of forthrightness but with a quiet humility and a simplicity of needs. And like Devorah in the Tanakh whose victory song is one of the most poignant and beautiful poems in the whole of Tanakh, Debbie’s poems and her prose poems, they’ve also got an aching beauty, they have a radiance about them.

Devorah, Debbie’s Hebrew name, most of us when we were praying for her it was always Devorah bat Chana, after mum, but now it’s also Devorah bat Israel, Devorah daughter of Israel, which is again such an appropriate name for Debbie because Israel was the name that was given to Jacob after he wrestled with the angels, and Debbie too wrestled with the angels, she gave them a tough time. Like Jacob she wouldn’t let them go unless they gave her a bracha, unless they gave her that blessing.

As she got more sick she got the other name which was Chaya, she became Chaya Devorah, ‘Chaya’ obviously meaning ‘life’. And how Debbie embraced life with such passion and with such power. I know she was an inspiration to all of us.

Rachael Kohn: Debbie Masel was an inspiration not only for her teaching but also for the strong and graceful person she was in the face of cancer. When I spoke with her last year, she already had endured many bouts of chemotherapy for a brain tumour, just one of the manifestations of her cancer. She’d just published In the Cleft of the Rock, prose poems on the Five Books of Moses, and here she explained how they grew out of a mystical way of reading scripture:

Deborah Masel: Well, the mystics say there are really four ways of reading the Torah, which is called by the mystics Pardes, a Hebrew word that means ‘orchard’. It is understood to be the mystic orchard, for ways of entering the Torah. The first Pardes is an acronym for the Hebrew word Peshat, which means a narrative reading of the text, just understanding the ritual meaning of what’s happening in the text. The next is Remez, which means ‘hint’, that there’s something in the text that is hinting towards something deeper.

The next level is the level that we call Derash, which is a homily and is often very frequently the level that the rabbi will access when he is giving...and I say ‘he’, but of course in the conservative and reformed congregations it could equally be giving a sermon in the synagogue to give some kind of educational point, spiritual point that can guide people. But then there is this fourth level which is this level called Sod, which means ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’ and that’s certainly the level that the mystics who coined this phrase, Pardes, were trying to activate.

I once had the privilege of meeting a genuine Kabbalist in Jerusalem who said to me something that I’ll never forget, he said, ‘You’ll never really understand the Peshat, you’ll never really understand the narrative of the text until you’ve accessed the Sod, until you’ve accessed the secret. And only when you really find the mystery of the text will the actual narrative come alive.’ And I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do.

Rachael Kohn: Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he, as a Kabbalist. But what I get in reading your prose poems is the sensory nature of your reading. You seem to dissolve the barrier between here and now and back then there, to get right into the minds and the hearts of the Israelites as they’re wandering in the desert.

Deborah Masel: Yes, I’ve spent a number of years teaching these texts on a weekly basis, and I do believe that for me there is no barrier. I really do experience the journey. One of my favourite things in life is teaching the weekly Parsha, and I find myself walking through it with Abraham, following the journey of Moses through the wilderness, and especially in terms of the characters that we come across in the Torah and the various ways that they are portrayed. I find myself not looking at them objectively at all but actually experiencing it as I understand it.

Rachael Kohn: Debbie, can you give me an example of how you do that?

Deborah Masel: Yes, one just came to mind just now, it is the Parsha that we call Toldot, it’s in the book of Genesis, and it’s about the story that most people will be familiar with, the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca who were very different people.

Esau was described as a man of action and a person who hunted, and Jacob was a simple pure soul, understood to be a scholar who lived in tents, and it was quite an interesting love triangle or quadrangle. Isaac loved Esau, Rebecca loved Jacob, and Isaac loved Rebecca, and we are stuck in all of these emotions. So I’ll just read you a few paragraphs from my prose poem on this Parsha.

[Reading from Isaac, the quiet child of sacrifice... to and shrub and blood.]

I’ll leave it there, but I felt that was an example of how much I do feel viscerally the characters that we come across in the Torah.

Rachael Kohn: And is this tradition of imagining the biblical characters in such detail already established in the tradition of Midrash?

Deborah Masel: Yes, I think it is, and perhaps even more so in the Hasidic tradition, to actually get inside the skins of the characters or inside the minds of the characters and feel the world the way they felt it, and experience in a sense the way they experienced each other.

Rachael Kohn: What allows you that kind of access? What do you think it is that gives you that gift?

Deborah Masel: I think what it is is not thinking. Certainly the mystic tradition is there as an underpinning, but when I was writing these poems, they are basically very condensed versions of the classes that I’ve been giving over a number of years, but I certainly don’t think that I was thinking when I wrote them. I was just might sound corny but really writing my love for this text.

Rachael Kohn: Can you give me another example of that?

Deborah Masel: [reading from Wilderness rises like water... to ...sacred art of travelling.]

Rachael Kohn: Debbie, you’ve been on another kind of journey in recent years, and that is that you’ve been struggling with living with cancer. How much has your work in reading the texts in this rich and enlivening way been important to you on that other front?

Deborah Masel: I really don’t know where I would be without it. I consider it on a par with my family and the support that I get from my family and friends. My love of this text and the enlightenment that I gained from it and the joy that I get from just listening to other people’s interpretations and to finding my own is beyond bounds.

There are many levels on which I value it and which I gain from the text. There is the level of meaning which gives me a sense...the Israelites took 40 years to traverse what really is a three-day journey, as anyone who has been to the Sinai Desert will attest to, it took them 40 years and there were many twists and turns along the way, and it really does help me with my journey. So there’s the level of meaning, but there is also the level of the language, the poetry of the Torah which just uplifts me and takes me to another place.

So in the winding path of my own journey, I feel that it’s been an incredible help and I hope it will be in the future.

Rachael Kohn: Do you think your experience with illness and facing your mortality, almost on a daily basis you must think about it, has that affected the way you read the text?

Deborah Masel: Yes, I think it has. I heard someone say on the radio the other day, I can’t remember who it was, that people live thinking they’ll never die. I certainly did, I was like most people, and I think I am now, like most people with metastatic breast cancer, I can’t live that way anymore and I have had to radically alter my view of who I am and accept the fact that I am mortal, which of course we all are, but accepting the fact is quite a different matter.

And through accepting that fact I think I have come to feel the stories of the Torah, and especially the way they are interpreted in Midrash and various interpretations throughout the ages, I’ve come to appreciate them more and perhaps feel them in a way that is much more immediate and intimate.

Rachael Kohn: Singing the psalms in Hebrew for Deborah Masel Miller, who lived and taught in Melbourne and was a contributor to The Sunday Age’s Faith column. She died of cancer July 22nd at the age of 54. Details of her books, In the Cleft of the Rock and Soul to Soul, can be found on our website at

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