The Mystery of Place: Reflections on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife

An Epilogue to Our Parshat Tetzaveh Video

I want to take a few minutes to share with you a thought that moved me this week. It appeared in the comments to our parsha video, and was contributed by a fellow who identified himself only as Avi. Here’s the background to his idea.

 

In this past week’s parsha video, I talked about the paradox embodied by the mishkan, the tabernacle. It is a place in our three-dimensional world for the One who transcends those dimensions. God, the creator, lives outside the world that He creates. He is not bound by the rules of physics that He created – nor is He bound by the categories of space and time that form the matrix of our existence. He is beyond all this; He is transcendent.

 

I mentioned on the video that the Sages, in Bereishit Rabbah, allude to all this with a cryptic aphorism: Why, they ask, is God called “The Place”? Because God is the place of the world; and the world is not His place. What could they possibly mean by that?

 

I suggested that they meant that God’s place is not in this world; that is, space and time is not the environment in which God “swims,” as it were. The Almighty is not a physical entity that needs a “place.”Nevertheless, God does have a relationship to our physical world. He is the “place,” so to speak, for that world.

 

To understand this, we need to think more deeply about what we mean by the word “place.” What does this notion really mean to us? A place is a vessel in space and time in which something exists. It is the environment that holds something. In our universe, something doesn’t exist unless it has a place. But let’s stop thinking about that which is ‘in’ our universe. What of our universe itself? What is the place for that?

 

That place – that ‘environment’ – would be God.

 

The Consolation of Place

So here’s what Avi had to say. He called attention to the fact that there are many appellations for God in our tradition. On occasion we call God the ‘Master of the Universe.’ Sometimes, we call God ‘The Holy One Blessed be He.’ On rare occasions we speak of God as ‘The Place.’ What quality do those occasions have?

 

One of the times we speak of God this way is when tragedy strikes, when we are mourning our dead. The traditional statement that one makes on taking leave of a mourner refers to God as ‘The Place”:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shaar avalei tziyon v’yerushalayim…

May “The Place” comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem…

Similarly, when we add a prayer for our brethren in trouble, we say:

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael hanetunim batzara . . . .HaMakom yerachem…”

Our brothers who are faced with travail and difficulty… may The Place have mercy on them…

It seems that in times of trouble, our tradition tends to refer to the Almighty as ”The Place.” Why?

 

Avi suggests that there is something comforting about thinking of God as “The Place.” When we ponder the notion that God is not of our world, that He is transcendent, that He doesn’t live in our little fishbowl called the universe of space and time, there’s something lonely about it. God lives apart from us, and we want to be close to God. We want particularly to feel that closeness when times are hard, when darkness touches our lives. When life feels cold to us, when we mourn – we sometimes mourn more than we might know. In our sadness, perhaps we mourn not just the passing of a loved one, but something more basic: We fear that we are truly alone, that somehow, God is not with us. It’s just us and the cold, emptiness of the vastness of the universe.

 

Do we know there is a God? Yes. Do we believe His influence is felt in the world? Yes. But the idea that God exists in a realm apart from us is still a lonely idea. It’s like the five-year-old who must go to sleep in her dark room at night, all alone. She knows her parents are next door. She knows they won’t abandon her. But still, it is hard. It is lonely. The room feels vast and she feels small. Small, and alone.

 

It is in those times, and those times particularly, that we are called upon to think of God as “The Place.” That name for God tells us something, that our Parent in Heaven is in fact, very near. It tells us that we are not alone; our Parent holds us. We exist, as it were, within Him. Our Creator may not inhabit our world. But our Creator is more than our Maker; He is the place, the nurturing environment, in which we, and all that we know, exists. He is our place. In Him, we find our home.

 

“The Place”: Implications for Life After Death

Taking these ideas just one step further, it seems to me that there are profound ramifications for how we might think of life after death. Death is scary. It is our confrontation with the great beyond, the moment at which we leave the comforting familiarity of space and time and confront What Comes Next.

 

No one really knows what comes next, and that makes it frightening. Unknown journeys, by their nature, evoke angst. But it seems to me that the notion of God as Place should be of some comfort to us. In that regard, allow me to share with you a piece of writing sent along to me by two good friends, Morris Smith and Andrew Herenstein. It seems to me a restatement, in a way, of ideas that appear in the classic Jewish work on death and dying, Gesher HaChayim (section III). I don’t know the original author of this beautiful piece, but I found it quite profound. Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replies, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery.

Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense,” says the other. “There is no life after delivery. What would that life be?”

“I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.”

The other says: “This is absurd! Walking is impossible. And eat with our mouths? Ridiculous. The umbilical cord supplies nutrition. Life after delivery is to be excluded. The umbilical cord is too short.”

“I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here.”

The other replies, “No one has ever come back from there. Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery it is nothing but darkness and anxiety and it takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” says the other, “but certainly we will see Mother and she will take care of us.”

“Mother??” You believe in mother? Where is she now?”

“She is all around us. It is in her that we live. Without her there would not be this world.”

“I don’t see her, so it’s only logical that she doesn’t exist.”

To which the other replied, “Sometimes when you’re in silence you can hear her, you can perceive her.”

I believe there is a reality after delivery and we are here to prepare ourselves for that reality.

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  • Ellyn

    I wanted to share a nice idea I heard regarding Makom that I have shared when being menachem avel. When we talk about Place, we tend to think of dimensions and in the physical world we measure a place, like a room, using length X width to get the square feet. Since Hashem is the Makom, there is a gematria that hints to this idea. If we take each of the letters of Hashem’s Name and use the letter as the “dimension” in both length and width, e.g. Yud X Yud + Heh X Heh + Vav x Vav + Heh X Heh = 186 we will get the gematria of the word Makom, which is also 186. There is no reality outside of Hashem and when a person passes into the next world, he/she is just literally in the next room.

  • tzvi

    I was wondering if it could also be understood as explaining the way to “experience”: God. While the metaphor of the face fits, it could be simpler in that the appurtenances of the mishkan represent the senses. Sight, smell, taste, and touch. Sound would be all encompassing or better yet, the idea that sound is represented in the kol dakah of the luchot in the aron- the naaseh v’nishma of the intellect in the kodesh hakodashim. Then the metaphor of how to have God dwell “amongst” or better “within” them (b’tocham) is that it is a multi-sensory experience.

  • Ben Katz

    Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch she-ar avaylay Tzion veYerushalayim means something completely different now from when it was first recited.
    This phrase used to be said when people wouldgreet mourners on the Temple Mount during the three pilgrimage festivals. Mourners would enter the oppositer gate from everyone else so they would circle the temple mount in the opposite direction. Therefore, whenever you saw someone coming at you, you knew he/she was a mourner, and you would say: Hamakom = May this holy place comfort you among all the mourners of Zion = the rest of the mourners (here on the temple mount, walking in the same direction as you are). NOW we are all mourners of Zion, so the last part of the phrase refers to everybody, and Hamakom is taken as a reference to God, probably from Esther 4 where Mordechai says to Ester, who is initially reluctant to intervene to save the Jewish people, that if she doesn’t help “perhaps help wll come from another place”, the latter of which perhaps being a reference to the Almighty.

  • Mati

    Well here’s my humble and unknowledged opinion: The Artscroll siddur translates “Hamakom” as “Omnipresent” which I like. “Place” gives an isolate (limit) attribute while “omni (every direction) present” keeps the infinite attribute. We say (as the angels say) in the Kedushah, “Baruch kavod HaShem mimikomo,” “Blessed (Happy) is the glory (lit.respect) of HaShem from His place.” or perhaps “Satisfaction is the respect of (G-d’s Name) [coming from the] Omnipresent.”

  • Daniel

    There is a song by Abie Rotneberg (I think on Journeys I) that also recreates the conversation of the two babies in utero. It is on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vF8CyHsm9Wc

  • marcellawilson

    I agree. The story does seem like a restatement of Rabbi Tuchazinski’s story of the twin brothers.

    I have highlighted a large portion of his writing, Gesher HaChayim. It is a wonderful book–a great comfort to the grieving. “Whatever G-d has made in His world does not revert to non-being….The composition has changed, but nothing has been lost.” (page 116)