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How the place comforts us

These are the most powerful lessons I have learned in the month after my father's death.

The other evening, at dusk, I took a walk.

This is not exactly newsworthy.

It took all of ten minutes. It took all of an eternity.

The reason for my stroll was to fulfill a particular mitzvah that our tradition connects with mourning.

The tradition is this: at the end of a mourning period, the mourner leaves his or her dwelling, and walks around the block, and then returns to his or her home.

A mourning period is like a period of confinement. When it ends, we break loose – like a prisoner leaving a prison, or like a newborn leaving the womb. Because we are no longer in the prison of our mourning. And, because the mourner is like a newborn — a new person, with a new sense of identity.

In my case, one month after the death of my father, George Salkin; thirty-three years after the death of my mother, Sidonia Karpel Salkin — a new me was born.

The orphan.

To quote the Psalm: I have walked “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

“For Thou art with me,” the Psalmist continues. The Psalmist means Thou as God, but my friends have all been my human Thous, my human stand-ins for the Eternal One, mortal messengers of the divine.

You have walked with me on this journey, on this path for which there is no adequate GPS or Waze, a traversal that every mourner ultimately must make on his or her own.

Countless comforters said these words to me over the past four weeks since my father’s funeral.

Ha-makom yinachem otcha: may God comfort you…b’toch shear avelelei Tziyon v’Yerushalahim – in the midst of all those who still mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.

That prayerful statement calls God ha-Makom, “the place.”

God is the place. God is the place beyond all places. In a Hasidic story, a man says to his son: “I will give you a gold coin if you can tell me where God is.”

To which his son responds, with an appropriate amount of traditional Jewish snark: “And, I will give you three gold coins if you can tell me where God is not.”

When we call God ha-makom, the place, we are saying that God contains every aspect of existence. We are saying that there is no place where God is not. Present in the tender moments of birth, and present no less in the equally tender moments of death; present in our laughter, and present in our tears; present in the babies we hold in our arms, and equally present in the ancient parents whom we also hold in our arms.

We can translate ha-makom literally — as “the place.”

My old college friend, the poet Ed Sheehy, who is not officially Jewish but who knows this stuff from the inside out — told me that places can comfort.

Ed was right. My synagogue, Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, was the place that gave me comfort.

Let me move one step further. The well wisher asks that God comfort the mourner – “in the midst of all those who still mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”

At no point in the life cycle does the Jew walk alone. We walk with our family. We walk with our friends. We walk with our history.

At a brit or baby-naming, the mohel or mohelet invokes the presence of Abraham. He or she echoes God’s words to Abraham: “Walk before Me, and be whole.” “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet” – for we imagine that the prophet Elijah attends every covenantal birth ceremony. Abraham is the first Jew. Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, is destined to be the last Jew.

History lives in this child, and through this child. We do not walk alone.

At a wedding ceremony, the sheva berachot, the seven wedding blessings, invite the couple to imagine themselves in the Garden of Eden.

The sheva berachot end with the proclamation that this marriage may herald the coming of the Messianic Age. “Yet again may it be heard in the streets of Jerusalem: the sound of bride and groom rejoicing, the sounds of children playing…”

History lives in this couple, and through this couple. We do not walk alone.

That is why we offer those words to mourners. “Ha-makom yinachem otcha: may God comfort you…b’toch shear avelelei Tziyon v’Yerushalahim – in the midst of all those who still mourn for Zion and Jerusalem. We join our hands together with all those who have mourned Jewish losses. We are with you. History binds us together.

History lives in all of us, and through all of us. We do not walk alone.

In times of grief, and in times of joy – time collapses. Space collapses. And souls become attached to one another – across the millenia, and across the miles.

There is one last thing that I have learned, or that I remembered – and once again, I learned it in my place — in my synagogue.

The Shabbat after my father’s death was the first Friday evening of the month. That is always our Friday Night Live service. The band plays. It is festive and joyous.

One of my members asked: The rabbi is in mourning. Wouldn’t the service be too festive, too joyful for him?

I was clear in my answer to the questioner – who only meant well, who was utterly sensitive, utterly solicitous of my feelings.

No, I said. Shabbat is a joyful time. You are not even supposed to mourn on Shabbat.

The emotions of the community, and the emotions of the calendar – always take precedence over the emotions of the individual.

  • Communal joy trumps individual sadness. Shabbat trumps shiva.
  • Communal sadness trumps individual joy. Yom Ha Shoah trumps a wedding.

Through my father’s death, I learned once again of the power of community, and of history.

To all those of you who were malachei ha-sharet, ministering angels of God – you who served as God’s stand-ins in providing comfort and meaning – I shall remain ever grateful.