When she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2007, Deborah Masel’s life collapsed. Two and a half years later, her struggle to find meaning in the shadowy world of terminal disease induced her to write not only of her cancer experience, but of threads from the past that were woven into the fabric of this “final curtain.”
In her search for comfort and meaning, Deborah found that the world of cancer was dominated by stories of physical survival, which was assumed to constitute “victory.” Yet her most treasured teacher, a Torah scholar who perished in the Holocaust, had awakened her, through the text he left behind, to the meaning of spiritual victory. If he could keep his disciples focused on God while the Nazis brutalized and dehumanized them, surely she could stay focused and not panic even when the cancer threatened to devour her.
Who among us can forget the day we discover that we are mortal, truly and irrevocably mortal. That we are going to die. It would be like forgetting the day the Twin Towers collapsed, or, if we are old enough, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated.
I was on the phone with my teacher Rabbi Hoffman in Denver for our weekly study session. For years, every Friday morning Melbourne time, we’d studied Sacred Fire, the text we’d been learning as a group in Safed the previous year, before we were interrupted by the Second Lebanon War.
The deeper the darkness became, the greater his spiritual response.
There’s nothing in the world quite like this text. Before the Second World War its author, the Rebbe of Piacezna, had spent years contemplating the principle of God’s ubiquity, theoretically and experientially. In a diary he kept before the war, he wrote of his desire to know that he was always in God’s presence, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
The Rebbe of Piacezna,
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira
“My soul takes courage,” he wrote. “Even in the depths of hell I shall not fear, for You are with me!” His early theoretical writings explore the concept of darkness as a source of light; of God’s hiddenness as the source of human enlightenment and revelation. Darkness, he argued, the sense of exile and separation gives rise to a longing in the human heart, a yearning to connect, which we call spirituality. It is the very sense of separation that is the basis of revelation. These beliefs made him particularly well equipped to confront the great darkness of the Holocaust. The deeper the darkness became, the greater his spiritual response.
I can’t remember which particular teaching from the Sacred Fire Rabbi Hoffman and I were studying the day I discovered my mortality, but I do remember hearing my mobile phone ring in the kitchen, and I remember hearing my son David answer it. I was trying to read the passage we were studying aloud over the phone, and I remember asking Rabbi Hoffman to take over because I was out of breath.
Something turned in the pit of my stomach, like a sleeping monster awakening.
The call my son had answered had been from the breast scan clinic. Could I come next Tuesday for further tests? Something turned in the pit of my stomach, like some kind of sleeping monster awakening. My bowels turned to water. I had to run to the bathroom. I knew. In the pit of my stomach, I knew everything. I knew what wouldn’t be verified for another four weeks. I knew with a knowing I’d never known before. I knew with all my trembling being.
In the months and years that followed, as my advanced metastatic breast cancer spread to my lungs and my bones and my brain, my years of study of the Warsaw Ghetto writings of the Rebbe of Piacezna served me well. The year before my diagnosis, when katyusha rockets fell on the sleepy town of Safed, I panicked and fled. If I could flee from cancer now, I would. But I can’t. Those first weeks after the final, terrible diagnosis I begged, I prayed real, tearful prayers from the heart, the broken, desperate heart. I was groping in the dark, staring at the abyss, when my rebbe, the holy Rebbe of Piacezna who was murdered by the Nazis in November 1943, reached out, all the way from the Garden of Eden, and saved me.
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 Sacred Fire, his text from the Warsaw Ghetto, and whenever I read these words, I hear him speak directly to me.
We Must Go Forth
It must have been shortly after my initial diagnosis, when I was struggling to come to terms with the words “incurable” and “terminal.” Rabbi Hoffman called. We’d continued to have brief telephone conversations, but we hadn’t studied together since the session during which the breast scan clinic had called to ask me back for more tests.
I was alone in my room. The door was closed and I felt free to pour out my heart.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked him tearily.
The “why’s” wouldn’t arise until much later. Those first weeks, I struggled desperately with the “what.” I just couldn’t fathom what had happened to my world.
Rabbi Hoffman responded with what I thought were platitudes. He assured me that despite everything, despite the grim biopsy results…who knows? Who knows what could happen?
I felt angry and unheard. Then he cajoled me into studying some Sacred Fire with him. It was the week we read in the Torah about Moshe sending out spies to scout the Promised Land. They return with fearful tales of cruel giants and highly fortified cities. The place was impossible to conquer, they said. They tried to persuade the Israelites to return to Egypt, for surely slavery would be preferable to what awaited them in this ‘Promised Land.’
Two of the 12 spies, Joshua and Caleb, dissented and urged the people to have faith and keep going. Neither Rabbi Hoffman nor I could recall what the Piacezna Rebbe had written about this episode. We looked it up, Rabbi Hoffman in his home in Denver, I in my Melbourne sickbed, 67 years after it was originally written in unimaginable, overwhelming and hopeless conditions. It was a very short piece, just three paragraphs. We found that in the Warsaw Ghetto in June 1940, the Rebbe had noted that Caleb did not try to persuade the people to keep going by demolishing the arguments of the others. He didn’t dispute their reports of fearsome giants and the great likelihood of defeat. He simply said, “We must go forth.”
Rabbi Hoffman asked if I had the strength to read. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that back then, in the Warsaw Ghetto in June, 1940, the Rebbe hadn’t had the strength to write.
“Yes,” I said, and read aloud, as best I could, over the phone. And as I read, we both gasped. The rebbe’s lips were moving! He was speaking to me! He was answering me.
I needed a proclamation of faith to transcend diagnosis, prognosis, statistics.
I read: “Not only when we see reasonable openings and paths for our salvation to occur within the laws of nature must we have faith that God will save us, and take heart, but also, when we see no way for salvation to come through natural means, we must still believe… A person needs to say, ‘Yes, all the logic and facts may indeed be true. The people who inhabit the land may be very strong, and their cities well fortified, and so forth, but I still believe in God, who is beyond any boundaries, and above all nature. I believe that He will save us.’”
It was a straightforward statement of faith, and it was what I needed to hear. Later, by 1942, when his world was buried in a darkness hitherto unexperienced, the Rebbe’s revelations were profoundly subtle and incredibly beautiful. But on that day, at that moment, I needed to hear a proclamation of faith in a power that transcends diagnosis, prognosis, statistics. I needed to be reminded of the power of possibility, and that truly, anything could happen. By the time I finished reading, I was weeping cool tears of purest joy.
Allowing the Possible
The Rebbe stayed with me. Some weeks later, I was on the phone with my psychiatrist, Dr. Birch, still struggling to come to terms with my situation. He was trying to convince me that metastatic cancer is not necessarily a sudden death sentence, that in some cases it is managed for years, like a chronic disease.
“Will I have a normal lifespan?” I asked, pathetically, as if he had the power to grant me one.
“Well,” he gently replied, “it’s not probable, but it’s possible.”
Those words struck a very deep chord. The Piacezna Rebbe was still working his holy magic. My teacher Avivah Zornberg taught me a powerful lesson. At the burning bush, when Moses asked God to describe Himself, God replied, “I am what I am, and I will be what I will be.” Avivah interpreted this to mean, “I am the very principle of becoming, of allowing the possible to happen.”
The longer I last, the more I feel a miniscule warp in a huge unfathomable scenario.
Finally, some kind of peace, some sense of hope and faith fluttered within me. Nan, my meditation teacher, had instructed me to find a phrase, a sentence that could serve me as my mantra. I’d been searching for weeks, and now I had it. The Piacezna Rebbe had given it to me, through his writings, through Rabbi Hoffman, through Dr. Birch, through Avivah. Every day, for over a year, I sat quietly, alone, eyes closed, and whispered my mantra, instilling it into me, into my belief system.
“I believe with perfect faith in the principle of becoming, of allowing the possible to happen.”
That’s how it goes in this shadowy world. The longer I last, the more I see it. A mysterious world, full of suffering and injustice, sprinkled with little moments of light. The longer I last, the less important I feel, the more I see myself as a little wriggle, a pleasant but miniscule warp in a huge unfathomable scenario, whose years are significant, equally significant, be they fifty or a hundred and fifty.
The more I fade from my own sight, the more I believe. I believe in something greater than myself, greater even than this great spinning world. I believe in words of Torah that open up worlds of infinite possibility. And I believe in that great love that was, that is, and that always will be.
Adapted from the author's latest book Soul to Soul: Writings from Dark Places, published by Gefen Publishing House
With sadness, we regret to inform you that Debbie Masel, the author, passed away Friday July 22, Tammuz 20. May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.