Upon greeting mourners, the Ashkenazic tradition is to say “Hamakom Yinachem Etchem,” translated roughly to ‘may the place comfort you,’ with ‘the place’ being a reference to God. Weeks after the massacre, as the entire Jewish people continues to share in the grief of those whose lives were taken and the courageous soldiers who have fallen, we would be right to ask: why is this the term used to speak of God in times of mourning?
As Yaakov journeys from Be’er Sheva to Charan at the beginning of our Parsha, he encounters a place – “Vayifga Bamakom.” (Genesis 28:11) While he will later discover that this place is sacred, the future site of the Beit Hamikdash, he seems at first to merely stumble upon this location. But Chazal read this phrase differently, noting that ‘Vayifga’ can also mean to entreat, engage, or demand. Thus they read “Vayifga Bamakom” not as ‘and he stumbled upon the place,’ but rather as ‘and he entreated God’ – with ‘the place’ being a reference to the divine. (Breishit Raba 68:9) It is ostensibly on this basis that the Gemara (Brachot 26b) infers that Yaakov instituted the prayer of Maariv, entreating God at night, when clarity has been obfuscated by the onset of both physical and existential darkness.
When Yaakov faces his moment of fear, fleeing the brother who wishes to kill him, he turns to God with a personal plea of salvation, In that moment, when he yearns for the comfort of divine closeness, he looks to God as a home, a “makom” in which he may open his heart and take refuge. The physical space of the Beit Hamikdash played exactly this function for generations, with mourners being greeted by other worshippers with the words “may the one who dwells in this place console you.” (Middot 2:2) The sense that God is near and accessible is the bedrock of faith in moments of challenge, crisis, and grief. Even now, as we pray for the welfare of our homes and our homeland, we feel ourselves calling out to the God who is intimately tied up with this place, tied up with us, asking for the comfort of closeness even in the face of tragedy.
We are witness to a surge in religious activity throughout Israel, with soldiers chanting the Shema and blowing shofar as they prepare for battle, and thousands of sets of Tzitzit, prepared by volunteers around the country, sent up to the front lines. Tehilim are being recited throughout Israel and around the world, as Jews of every stripe pray for the hostages, the soldiers, the wounded, and the grieving. So many people are seeking out the presence of God in this trying moment, to feel that the divine is with us.
And as we approach God, we find that God is with us in this moment, sharing in our distress. Chazal teach us that whenever the Jewish people suffers, God suffers alongside us. (Megillah 29a). Our pain is His pain, our sadness is His grief, and our salvation is His redemption (ibid.). For God is not far away; God is here. The whole land of Israel, indeed the whole world, is the place where God resides, joining us in our struggle, imposing upon Himself a degree of imperfection as He sheds a tear for our collective pain. It is this God, “haMakom,” whom Jacob meets as he forges the Jewish people, and this is the God to whom we turn in our moments of crisis, as we find ourselves today.