What To Say To Suffering and DeathABC Radio National, The Spirit of Things,
14 August 2011Deborah
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.
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 Sou
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 she...is
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
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.
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
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 ...earth and shrub and blood.
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.
Kohn: And is this tradition of imagining the biblical characters in
such detail already established in the tradition of Midrash?
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?
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 writing...it 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 abc.net.au/rn/spiritofthings.
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