Anyone who’s lost a parent, or any loved one, goes through the inevitable process of wondering whether they’ve been abandoned by G-d.
Part of an answer comes in the words of consolation we say to someone in mourning. “May G-d console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for G-d here, HaMakom, literally means “The Place.” May “The Place” reach out to console us. There are many different names for God in Jewish prayer and Torah, each of them opening our eyes to a different aspect of His light and reality. But the name HaMakom, “The Place”- or perhaps better, “The Omnipresent One” – is rarely used. Why this special name at this most sensitive time?
Before we can answer, let’s look at another expression of the concept of place in Jewish mourning. Ordinarily, we’re supposed to have a set place where we pray, either in our home or in shul – ourmakom kavuah. According to Jewish law, during the 12 months of mourning a person must move this place about eight feet from the usual place of prayer. The simple explanation is that in our lives we’ve experienced a sense of dislocation and this is reflected in our choice of a place of prayer. Maybe it reflects dislocation in our relationship with G-d, as well.
But there’s an interesting twist in this halacha, which is that on Shabbos, we return to our regular place. This has to do with the special blessing of the day. The Ishbitzer Rebbe asks what the difference is between simcha (joy) and oneg (bliss). “Simcha,” he says, “is when G-d gives you something you didn’t have before, but oneg is when G-d shows you what you’ve had all along.” Shabbos is a time ofoneg, when G-d lifts us out of the work-a-day week and gives us a heavenly perspective. On Shabbos we can experience oneness between the physical and the material, and the seamless flow that connects them. Thus un-dislocated, we can return to our usual seat in the synagogue. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav ties together these various strands with regard to the parting of the soul. Says RebbeNachman: “Most people think that when someone dies, he goes from one room to another. But I say when someone dies, he goes from one side of the room to the other side of the same room.”
In other words, people may think of this world and the next as two discrete entities, two worlds that are next to each other but otherwise have nothing in common. But the reality is that the universe is one room, not two. And that same Divine energy that enlivens the upper spheres exists below here, albeit in a different external form. Imagine a never-ending road. This is life. At a certain point, we may shed our bodies, but the journey along that same road continues; in fact, we don’t even miss a step.
Thus, as much as we think that there’s a separation between our departed parent and us, or (worse) between G-d and us, it’s really not the case. So G-d consoles us by saying, “I am the Place, so wherever you go and whatever you feel, I am with you.” The mourner sees this continuum most clearly on Shabbos, but it is always there.
I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach comfort someone who had lost her mother. “Now you’re closer to your mother than ever,” he said. “Because it used to be when you wanted to be with her, you’d have to call her, or she’d call you. But now, the truth is that wherever you go, she’s right there with you.” And how close is that? According to our Sages, “closer than two hairs on a person’s head.” This world and the next are completely intertwined.
In those same words of consolation, the word used for “you” – “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion…”- is etchem the plural form. Why? According to the Baal Shem Tov, it’s because the departed soul needs to be comforted along with the mourner. But the departed are with G-d in the Garden of Eden! Why do they need comforting? Because they’re sad that we’re sad.Unbelievable.
Thus the Omnipresent One is with each of us in every realm, and we are all a hair’s breadth from one another, across time and in every place. The more we understand this, the more we’ll be comforted with all the mourners, living and dead.
And now we see how G-d consoles us with the name HaMakom. Contained in that name is the realization that wherever we go, and whatever we’re experiencing, He is with us. And this is the ultimate comfort for all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
David Sacks speaks frequently on topics of Jewish spirituality, and is an Emmy Award-winning writer/producer.