Noah Leavitt

Holding Grief and Hope in HaMakom

Communal Art Wall in Hostages' Square (Photo by Noah Leavitt)

Last week I had the chance to visit Israel for the first time since the October 7th attack. I delivered clothes to evacuees, brought pizza to soldiers, and helped care for dogs from Otef Aza. I listened to a teenager describe how she heard the gunshots and screams as her neighbors were murdered and wondered if she was next. I hugged a father whose son was killed fighting Hamas and cried with the mother of a hostage who wants to know if her daughter is dead or alive. These activities and meetings were, as might be expected, moving, challenging, even overwhelming, yet I also encountered something unexpected on my trip.

The parsha begins with the words “Jacob left Beer Sheva and set out for Haran.” The commentators note that the Torah did not have to tell us that Jacob was leaving Beer Sheva, after all we already knew that’s where he was, it could simply have told us that he set out for Haran. The 15th century Biblical commentator Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel argues that the Torah adds a description of Jacob leaving Beer Sheva to indicate that Jacob felt a tremendous sense of loss and pain at having to leave. He felt that he was losing his homeland and his family.

It was, then, to comfort Jacob that God appeared to him in a dream on the first night of his journey. According to the sages of the Talmud, the location where this dream took place was none other than the spot where the sacrifice of Isaac had occurred a generation earlier. The Torah describes both locations only as makom – a place. This location is known as Mount Moriah and would become the location where the Temple, God’s dwelling place, would be built in Jerusalem. It is the spot where Abraham nearly lost Isaac, where Jacob went to sleep believing he had lost his family, and where the ruins of the Temple stand today. It is a location marked by a stark duality. A center both for communal grief and hope. It evokes feelings of sadness over our great losses but also feelings of hope over our connection to God.

Makom can refer not just to a place but to God as well. We comfort mourners with the words, “Ha-Makom yenachem etkhem …” “May the place [God] comfort you…” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that we only use this name for God at particular times. “The appellation of ha-Makom, “the Place,” refers to God when He retreats and seems distant, at times of travail, trauma, and tragedy.” Rabbi Soloveitchik writes. “Yet even when He recedes to His Place, nonetheless, from a distance ha-Makom appears to us.” We refer to God as ha-Makom when we encounter God through a stark duality. When we feel overwhelmed by grief, yet the promise of God’s appearance instills in us hope for the future.

On my last night in Israel, I encountered the duality of makom in a different place: Hostages’ Square in Tel Aviv. The square where the families and friends of hostages sit and share their stories has become a communal gathering place. Its art exhibits reflect communal grief. It is a place of overwhelming sadness but also of one of intense togetherness that makes it difficult to leave. I felt myself unexpectedly being lifted up and supported by the space given to share grief. It is a grief that does not dissipate, but also does not paralyze, instead driving people forward to hope, to strengthen their communities and to care for those in need.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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