The Hebrew word makom has been the theme of my week for at least three reasons.
The first is because I have been teaching two simultaneous classes on Jewish custom related to mourning and comforting mourners. In class this past week, we discussed that a mourner is actually not permitted to greet people for the duration of shiva (seven days). As in, to say, "Hello, how are you?" And they are not permitted to answer the question for the first three days of mourning. So what, then, might a person say to someone deep in grief? Well, the rabbis authored a salutation for just this purpose. It begins, "HaMakom yenachem etchem..." May the Place comfort you... In this case Makom is a name for the Divine. God as a physical or metaphysical comforting space.
The second reason is because I have spent the last week looking extensively at commercial real estate in West Philly. As many of you know one of our community's priorities is to identify a new physical space that can house the majority of Kol Tzedek programs. We are actively looking for (and fundraising to afford!) a physical place to gather in the Cedar Park neighborhood that is ADA accessible, with working heat, air conditioning, and adequate ventilation, that can accommodate our growing community. As we tour different buildings, I find myself trying to feel into the felt sense of a place. Can I feel a sense of Makom, of presence, in this place?
And the third reason is that the word makom appears in two key moments in this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei. As Jacob leaves from Be'er Sheva and heads towards Haran, the second verse of the parsha begins,
"And [Jacob] encounters baMakom/the Place... (Genesis 28:11)"
In fact, the word makom actually appears three times in that very verse:
"He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones from that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place."
This moment takes on unexpected spiritual magnitude. The rabbis understand the encounter in this place to be a prayerful act, a precedent for the Ma'ariv/Evening service itself. To encounter a place is to really be there, is to be present, is to connect to holiness.
This moment in which Jacob lays down to rest his head on a few stones always reminds me of the words of the poet Mary Oliver in her poem "Praying":
"It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak."
In what ways is HaMaKom a place? And in what ways is it a doorway? An opportunity for comfort, for connection, for refuge, for rest, for deep sanctuary?
And then, a few verses later (Gen. 28:15-16), Jacob wakes from his slumber, and we see this magic word appear twice more:
"'Surely יהוה is present in this place, and I did not know it!' Trembling, he said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.'"
Is the Makom God or the doorway to the Divine? Or both?
Either way, it is my hope that every time we gather, whether in celebration or mourning, online and in person, at Calvary and in our new someday home, that we feel comforted by the power of the Place we are in together. That we are able to take refuge in being together and experience a doorway to the presence of HaMakom. That we are open to being surprised by our own spiritual experiences. Such that we, like Jacob, can say, "Wow, the Holy One is in this place, and I didn't expect it."
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.