Ha-makom: The Comfort of Community

By Harriet R. Goren | Issue Date: October 2009

My first thought: This is how the Israelites must have felt during the parting of the Red Sea. Or maybe just the ones in the back, after they saw that God really did come through as promised, that walls of water would hold, and there was no safer place in the world than this narrow path between two pulsing, towering cliffs.

One Friday evening during Kabbalat Shabbat at BJ, and in the middle of the week of shiva for my brother, I sat downstairs with a Hevra Kadisha member who volunteers for the task of accompanying mourners as they enter the sanctuary following Lekha Dodi. We waited in quiet for a half hour; I almost forgot that people were praying right above us. Then an usher came to tell us it was time, and we walked upstairs and stood outside the sanctuary for a few minutes as everyone finished dancing and singing. (“Do you want to go back?” whispered the usher, concerned that I wasn’t ready to witness such joy even from afar. But I was really glad to see happy people, although relieved not to participate. This was the first time all week I had been able to hear music without cringing in pain.) The door opened, and I walked down the aisle to a seat up front as everyone stood and said:

Ha-makom y’nahem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar avelei tzion virushalayim.

May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Ha-makom: literally, “the place,” but also a name of God. But it seems to me that the translation should be more concrete than “God”—the word evokes an actual structure filled, rather than a Presence that fills. At that moment, as I walked in between walls of people, I knew that this room, together with everyone abiding within it, was God— the God of comfort, embodied in my community and those who waited, hugged, and fussed over me during that half hour, and my friends who had arranged to sit next to and in rows right behind me; and the God of my heritage, in the few seconds between the back of the sanctuary and my seat when I could almost hear an echo of this moment in all those other stories of exodus, pain, and redemption.