Debbie’s soul

Part cancer story, part memoir, part kabbalistic manuscript, ‘Soul to Soul’ is a story about death and dying, but actually it’s about life, relationships, suffering and God.

By ELANA SZTOKMAN
August 25, 2011 18:26
Debbie Masel

Debbie Masel. (photo credit: Courtesy Debbie Masel)

It is so hard to read a book written by someone who has recently died. The words on the page echo her voice, bringing her whole being to life in your head, behind your eyes, inside your ears.

You forget for a moment that she is no longer in her body. You mistakenly think she is simply elsewhere, in another spot on the planet, while you are holed away, escaping by yourself with her beautiful narrative.

Maybe she’s not really gone, just far away, your mind toys with you. Memories of conversations you had with her over the years morph in your imagination with the story unfolding in the volume open before you. You sense her presence, filling the room, envisage her sitting in the chair across from you, her soft smile lightening the atmosphere.

And then you look up and realize, no, she really has left. And then the weight of the book in your hands becomes overwhelming.

And you freeze, because you don’t want to turn the page, you don’t want to let go.

Debbie Masel succumbed to cancer in July, shortly after her book was released.

Soul to Soul: Writings from Dark Places was perhaps her last great Torah wisdom, a brilliant collection of some of her powerful and passionate insights gleaned from her four-year battle with cancer. It’s perhaps a story about death and dying, but actually it’s about life, spirituality, relationships, suffering and God. It is like an album full of some great snapshots of lessons and teachings, the kind of teachings that one can only gain at a moment when one is close to God, almost touching eternity.

It’s as if Debbie was on her way to embrace the Infinite, but turned back for the benefit of the rest of us, to give us one last Torah lesson, maybe her best one yet.

This book is an act of supreme selflessness, giving us a gift before she went, a permanent legacy of her mind and soul.

Debbie was a Jewish educator and a writer from Melbourne, Australia, whose journey took her many places for sojourns short and long – England, America, Asia, and most notably Israel.

She was known for her mystic teachings and insights, for her compassion and gentleness of spirit, and mostly for her Divine wisdom. She taught, wrote books and essays, held classes in her house and sent out her penetrating interpretations of the weekly portion. She was involved in several communities, always seeking out deep connection, relationship and meaning.

I was privileged to be able to call her a colleague during my family’s three-year stay in Melbourne. My students at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School often came into class right after they had hers, and I was able to learn by osmosis through our mutual students, hearing her profound interpretations of the deeper implications of Jewish practice.

Her ideas would blow you away, taking you to a whole other dimension. Tellingly she always started her class with music – she wanted to make sure that people understood that this was a sacred space, that when they walked into the room, they were entering a different arena.

Debbie’s book is part cancer story, part memoir, part kabbalistic manuscript. She used her incredible writing gift to make the reader think that this is a story about her last few years of life – from bombings in Safed through end-stage cancer. In fact, this is not so much about cancer as it is about the search for meaning, for an understanding of good and evil, suffering, humanity and the purpose of life.

Cancer is almost the backdrop for the journey, the trigger through which Debbie reached astounding heights of wisdom.

Masterfully woven into the entire narrative are Debbie’s reflections on the Eish Kodesh, a mystical book written by the Piacezna Rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he miraculously buried his papers before he was murdered by the Nazis in 1943. She brings the reader into the depths of human anguish, perhaps the darkest of all dark places, and from there gently leads the reader through her search for God. It is a remarkable feat, and I believe this book should find its own sacred place on the shelves of Jewish spirituality alongside the Eish Kodesh.

The hardest part about reading this book is that you don’t want it to end. As long as the book is open, as long as you have a few more pages to go, you can still hear Debbie’s voice in your head as you read. I kept reading a few pages and then putting it down, allowing her spirit to be absorbed into mine slowly. Like a good glass of wine, you’re afraid to drink too much too fast, afraid of that horrible moment when the glass is empty and the experience is over. 



Soul to Soul reminds you that we all come and go at different times and under different circumstances, that relationships are forged and can remain spiritually alive whether a person is currently on the other side of the globe or in a different spiritual realm. We are all creatures of the Divine, and our life experiences, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes excruciating, are our guides on this quest for goodness, truth and godliness.

As Debbie writes, chillingly: “It’s written in the Talmud that if anyone recites the words of a dead scholar, the lips of that scholar mutter in the grave. The Rebbe of Piacezna quoted this Talmudic teaching in the Eish Kodesh, and whenever I read these words, I hear him speak directly to me.”

It’s as if Debbie is instructing us, her students and friends, how to find her once she’s gone. When I read this book, I hear her speaking directly to me as well.


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