The Place

Just a couple of weeks ago, before Rosh Hashanah, I was in the gym trying to take a break from all the preparations for the new year.  As I was about to lift some weights, a woman whom I see there regularly stopped me. There was a serious expression on her face.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Do you believe in an afterlife?”

I stopped; my eyes widened.  This was not a regular gym question like “what channel is CNN on the TV?” or “is this a good stretch for my calf?”

The questioner knows that I am a rabbi and she is not Jewish so perhaps she wanted an official Jewish take.  

But she asked me what did I believe, not what our tradition teaches.

I paused as it was an unexpectedly intense question at a moment I least expected it.

And I thought about it.

The truth is I have been thinking about it ever since: what happens to those we have lost and how do we cope when faced with loss?

*      *      *

One of the greatest challenges and greatest gifts of being a rabbi is to live a life regularly touched by death.  Holding someone’s hand as life slips away is a painful, but sacred moment.

Reciting the vidui – the final prayer before death, sometimes with a person alone, and sometimes surrounded by people, is to enter into a place where space and time take on a different texture.   

I have become accustomed to the Jewish rituals that mark the end of life, but I am continually struck by the finality of each encounter.  Each death hits me anew. I experience the pain – both empathy for the people who have lost a loved one, but also my own sense of sadness.  Someone I knew is no longer here. Someone with whom I had a relationship is gone. Our Emunah family is no longer the same.

As I look around our shul this morning and think about the past few years, I am struck by how many losses we have experienced.  And I send a message of condolence to all those who have become bereaved in the past year, and to all of us who have lost dear family and friends over the years.

We hold all of them, and you, in our hearts and memories.

* * *

I  think back to the moment at the end of a funeral when we form two lines and recite the traditional words of consolation that our people have recited for thousands of years: HaMakom yinahem etkhem betokh she’ar aveilei Tziyon Virushalayim – may the Place – haMakom – console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

It’s a strange formula: first, why does it refer to God as HaMakom, the Place or the Omnipresent or the One Who is in all places – why not simply Adonai as we refer to God in most prayers?

Second, what is the significance of being consoled among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem?

Jerusalem seen from the Mount of Olives photo by Dan taken 1-7-2007

To me, the answer is the same to both.  We try to communicate to the mourner that even though we cannot even begin to fathom your particular experience of loss and grief, we will not abandon you, but will be by your side.  

At the moment when you feel most alone and most vulnerable, we will try, though imperfectly, to be there for you.  Our people, our community, stands with you. HaMakom, the space between the one who mourns and the person who consoles, is with you.

The word HaMakom has another layer to it as well.  The word is used when Jacob heads into the wilderness after he runs away from his brother Esau.  This is the famous spot where Jacob has his dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending.

Marc Chagall’s Jacob’s Dream sketch for the series Le Message Biblique, 1960-66, oil on cardboard photo by Timothy Wat taken 12-21-2010

But this story opens with the words “Vayifga’ BaMakom – Jacob came upon a place.” (Gen 28:7) It’s also a strange formulation – “Vayifga” – usually it is used for getting injured. In modern Hebrew a “pigua” is an attack, often referring to terrorism.

What does it mean that Jacob came upon this place in such an intense, almost violent sense?

Rashi explains that the word here is BaMakom, meaning THE place and therefore, it must refer to a place already mentioned in the Torah.  Rashi identifies it as the mountain where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, a scene that also contained the word makom.

Our rabbis claim that place becomes the center of the Beit Hamikdash, of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the place where God’s presence is felt most intensely.

Ismar Schorsch (JTS bio)

The former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, points to the problem of this reading since now God is being seen as tied to a specific place – Jerusalem.  Jacob who is going off into the wilderness and needs God’s comforting presence on his journey, as well as during the years he will spend in Haran, needs a universal God, one who is found in many places, not just in Jerusalem.

     Schorsch points us to Rabban Gamliel who asked, not long after the Roman victory in 70 C.E. when the Second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem: “Why did God choose to reveal God’s self to Moses in a lowly burning bush? To make the point that there is no place on earth which is devoid of God’s presence.”

Schorsch elaborates “In time Rabban Gamliel’s view became concretized in a bold new name for God, perhaps my favorite, HaMakom, which we might render best as ‘the All-encompassing One.’  The term expands beyond measure, [beyond] the indeterminate “place [or] makom,” of Genesis. God is now dauntingly conceived as the space in which the universe exists. God is neither outside the world nor resident within it; the world constitutes a part of God.  Transcending both gender and image, the conception expresses the grandeur and austerity of Jewish monotheism. […]

“No less important, it offers the comfort of God’s nearness. The ancient charge against Judaism was that its God was transcendent and remote and therefore inaccessible.  Monotheism had emptied the world of all intermediate beings. Perhaps it satisfied the mind, but it chilled the heart.

“To counter this, the rabbis avowed that their God was both far and near, awesome and intimate.  As the soul fills the body, God’s presence pervades the universe. […] God was never out of reach.  We were in fact immersed in God’s ubiquitous presence.”

That is why we use God’s name HaMakom at the funeral and during shivah and on Friday nights, when we welcome the mourners back into community – to remind the bereaved that they are not alone.  The people of Israel and God share their pain.

Movie Poster for Disney Pixar’s Coco

“No house of mourning, no place of suffering is without God’s presence. God softens the anguish of a community joined by fate and faith.”

*      *      *

On a Saturday night this summer, I joined my family to watch an animated motion picture from 2017: Coco.

I have to say I was deeply moved by the movie.

The writer Marjorie Ingall, summarized the film: “The plot involves ofrendas — altars on which family members pay tribute to relatives who’ve passed away. The conceit is that if someone’s picture isn’t on an ofrenda, that person can never return [to visit the living on the holiday called the Day of the Dead].  Miguel [the boy who is the protagonist of the film] meets someone who desperately wants to see his still-living family…but that will only be possible if Miguel places his photo on the altar before the last person who remembers him dies.”

While the film is imbued with Catholic rituals and Mexican cultural themes, I was struck by the similar approach to remembering that is also at the root of Judaism’s mourning practices.  We are invited to remember the dead – to tell stories that help us cope with the loss.

A song from the film, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez who also, along with her husband, wrote the lyrics to the film Frozen, expresses Coco’s spirit:

“Keep our love alive, I’ll never fade away

Remember me

For soon I will be gone

Remember me

And let the love we have live on

And know that I’m with you the only way that I can be

So until you’re in my arms again, remember me.”

* * *

We yearn to be remembered, and to remember.

Fortunately, our practices concretize this in ritual.  Think of the Shivah home where we are asked to visit and perform the sacred mitzvah of nihum aveilim – consoling mourners.  Traditionally, we do so by going to a mourner’s home and speaking little.  Perhaps we state simply: “I am sorry for your loss,” but then we are silent as we make room for the mourner to share memories of their loved one or talk about something else or simply to sit in silence.

Sitting in silence is hard – but the tradition invites us into that space – HaMakom, a space that is large enough to encompass the silence of deep pain.

Coco revolves around a dia de los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead and while we do not have that day in our tradition, we do have parallels.

Our notion of a yartzeit, the anniversary of someone’s death is similar.  We have many traditions around a yartzeit including fasting, studying or giving tzedakah in our loved one’s memory and visiting their grave.  We light a yahrzeit candle and come to minyan to say kaddish, have an aliyah to the Torah where the memorial prayer, the El Malei Rahamim, is recited, elevating their soul.

The greeting on a yahrzeit is “may your loved one’s memory only go higher;” the idea being that our actions in this world somehow have an impact on their soul in the next realm.  And by our lifting them up, somehow, they are pulling on the other end of this invisible cord and that pulls us up a bit as well, helping us mourn, cope, heal, remember and continue.

Their love for us is still there.

* * *

This notion resonates strongly.

We find it also in the Yizkor prayers we are about to recite: we remember our loved ones, lifting them up by promising to perform acts of kindness and give tzedakah – in essence, continuing the good works they did or did not get a chance to do in this realm.

Bowdoin College Hillel ark created by Koehler Woodworks of Brunswick, ME

And today, on Yom Kippur, this notion of a day of death is most intensely felt – today is a rehearsal for our own deaths.  Last night, we took the Sifrei Torah, the Torah scrolls from the ark, but unlike our normal practice when we close the ark after the Torah scrolls are removed, we left it open.  The aron was then empty as the words of Kol Nidrei were intoned.

Aron can mean an ark like the one behind me, but it is also the word for a coffin.  And so, we stood, contemplating our own mortality, our own vulnerability – on this a day suffused with that awareness from the intense Unetane Tokef to prostrating on the ground, from Yizkor itself to fasting.  We wear a white kittel, which is akin to the takhrikhin – the burial shroud we are lovingly wrapped in at death.  We do not wear our regular shoes – we are both mourners and in fact, preparing for our own eventuality.

*      *      *

So where does the afterlife fit in?  

It is an understanding that has evolved over time.  Most scholars believe that our biblical ancestors did not believe in olam haba – the next realm of existence, or, at least, not in the same sense our rabbis did a millennium later.  People died – they were buried in the earth or a cave and after the body decomposed, the bones were interred with the bones of our ancestors in a family tomb – sometimes in a pit or in an ossuary, a bone box.

That is why the Tanakh, our Hebrew Bible, speaks of being gathered up to our ancestors because it was literal.  You were gathered up with them.

According to some, the idea that our soul or some part of us descends to Sheol is already found in the Tanakh.  For example, the witch of Endor speaks to the deceased prophet Samuel on behalf of King Saul.  And he rises up from the earth and speaks with her. This is most unusual, to say the least; the book of Deuteronomy specifically instructs against conjuring up these spirits.

In the Second Temple period, the idea of our soul continuing in a realm beyond develops so much that by rabbinic times, our tradition believes in different realms for those who have been righteous in this world and for those who have not.

Our tradition then incorporates the idea of resurrection – that God will give life to the dead – mehayeh hameitim.  This becomes a central pillar of rabbinic belief so much so that the Amidah, our standing central prayer – recited five times today on Yom Kippur, devotes its second blessing to this theme.

This second paragraph of the Amidah is usually called the Gevurot – God’s powers and it lists them – God is described as “mekhelkel hayyim b’hesed – the One who sustains the living in love, gives life to the dead in mercifulness, supports the falling, heals the sick, frees those who are bound and keeps faith with those who sleep in dust.”  We say to God, “Whose power can compare with Yours? You are the Sovereign of life, death and deliverance.”

It’s a powerful paragraph and we often just sing it – I’ll speak for myself: I have sung or recited this paragraph thousands of times, but rarely ponder its meaning.

In these few lines, it mentions giving life to the dead in one form or another six times.  To understand the emphasis, we need to rewind the clock some 2,000 years to the first century of the Common Era when this text was being codified.  There were several Jewish sects before even the advent of Jewish-Christians who, as we know, would split off and form a very successful religion of their own.  The largest groups were the Sadducees and the Pharisees – the Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead and Pharisees maintained a belief in it. The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Gemara are the descendants of the Pharisees and we are the descendants of those rabbis and that is why resurrection is so emphasized in our siddur.

It is important to note that our sages added the prayer for rain into this section pointing us to nature.  Perhaps they wanted us to contemplate the notion that just as nature renews itself in its annual cycles of birth, death and rebirth, our souls, too, will travel on a similar journey.

*      *     

But there is another compelling part of that paragraph – “mekhalkel hayyim b’hesed.”  Beyond life after death, there are other values listed – sustaining the living in love, lifting up those who have fallen, healing the sick.

Why are these actions placed next to the notion of an afterlife?  They deal with the living.

One perspective on this invites us to realize the key to death is how we live.

How we live on is really about how we impact others.  We are being taught that the afterlife, and our memories of those who have left us, is bound up in how we act right now in this realm.

Our behavior is the living testament to their values and what they taught us, to their love that continues.

Their impact is also found in the very reality that we can close our eyes and see our loved ones, hear their voices; their memories live on in a concrete way.  

As I look around the shul, we can see the empty seats where members of our community sat.  When I close my eyes, I can see their faces, their smiles and hear their words.  Their impact is still felt. They are still here with us.

We have experienced so many losses that the pain in our shul, in this sacred space right now is palpable.  Their absences can be overwhelming.

Our tradition invites us to open a window in our hearts, so their presence can continue to flow in.  Our rituals help us hold them, helping us both to honor their memories and, over time, to find the space –  HaMakom – to move toward healing, even as the scar of the loss always remains with us.

Leon Wieseltier from Goodreads.com author page

As Leon Wieseltier writes in his majestic book entitled Kaddish, about his year of mourning and reciting the Kaddish daily for his father, “Mourning is a process of remoralization. In sorrow is the seed of change.”

*      *      *

I feel the presence of those who have left and that sustains me.  I am even more certain that their values live on – humanity is different from every other species in that we can retain more knowledge and pass it on to future generations.  That wisdom has created wondrous medical and scientific discoveries and developed spirituality that can give our lives meaning and a moral compass.

That is real – and along with that, the feelings of sadness permeate this moment especially for those in our community who have had losses in recent times.

I have become less concerned with the question of what happens to us when we die, but rather, how do we mourn our loved ones and keep their memories alive?

For our loved ones live on in us and there is a thread that still connects us.  Whether one has children and relatives to mourn them, or friends and the community take on that role, their impact reverberates beyond their time among the living.

Whether it is the tangible ofredas in Coco, or something more ephemeral, the bond is there.  It binds us – past, present and future – HaMakom – the Spacious One has capacity to hold us all.

*      *      *

While this is not a simple topic that can be summed up in a few sentences, I can tell you what I said to the woman at the gym.  

I said that “I am not sure, but I believe there is a realm beyond.  That there is something. It may not be an existence anything like ours, but for me, for the universe to make sense, there must be something.

And….

“What I do know is that people’s impact continues long after their physical presence has left the world.”

Whatever you believe, may you discover meaningful ways to hope and heal as we remember our loved ones after their lives have ended.

May their memories and their love continue to bless us as we find comfort in HaMakom.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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