One of the most difficult tasks anyone will ever face is that of offering comfort to someone who has just lost a loved one. Finding the right words is often a frustrating and embarrassing experience.
All too often the well-meaning friend or relative is reduced to such eternal verities as, "Well, he sure was a swell guy!" Or, "You're over it now, right?"
At times like these, even the most fervent advocates of creative personal expression gratefully take a Jewish prayer book and recite the traditional formula:
HaMakom yenachem et'chem b'toch shar avay'lay Tzion vee'Yerushalayim.
May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Like any prayer or blessing, this may be said in one's own native language, but the Hebrew is preferred. At first, this preference for Hebrew might seem to only add awkwardness to an already painful moment, but as we shall see, the depth and beauty of the Torah's language offers a unique perspective on our confrontation with mortality.
Wipe Away the Pain
For starters: Isn't it strange that we call upon God to comfort the mourner? After all, isn't the person visiting the mourner the one who is supposed to be doing the comforting?
The answer is that our human capacity to empathize with the bereaved is limited. Only one who truly understands and appreciates the person's loss can really offer comfort. And which of us can put himself into the shoes of someone who has just spent the last six months with a parent dying of cancer; or someone whose baby passed away suddenly and inexplicably of SIDS; or whose loved one was just blown to pieces by a suicide bomber in a coffee shop in Jerusalem?
Who can put himself into the shoes of someone who just spent the last six months with a parent dying of cancer?
Only God, who knows the secrets of the heart, is truly capable of fathoming such grief, and of providing comfort.
Indeed, the human capacity for being consoled is hardly explicable. They say that time heals all wounds. But it's not true. Some people never recover from their loss. The biblical patriarch Jacob mourned over his son Joseph for 22 years, mistakenly believing that he had been killed by a wild animal. Jacob only stopped mourning when he discovered that Joseph was alive and well in Egypt. Until then, he could not forget his "dead" son.
That is because it is only by Divine decree that the pain of bereavement eases, and that only goes into effect when the person is really dead. The decree did not take effect for Jacob because his son was not dead.
Consolation is not a natural process. Neither the passage of time, nor the awkward, well-meaning gestures of others can remove the memory or wipe away the pain. That is why we ask God to comfort him – because we cannot.
But why do we use the word "HaMakom" – the Omnipresent (literally, "The Place")? It is but one of the many names of God, and not the one normally employed in blessings. Perhaps "HaRachaman," the Merciful One, would be more appropriate?
God is everywhere, true. But a person who has lost a loved one often feels that he has been abandoned by God; that there is no God where he is. We say to the mourner, therefore, that HaMakom should comfort him: We pray that he be blessed by a renewed awareness of God's presence, even in the grief-stricken place in which he now finds himself – for that place, too, is HaMakom, the place of God.
HaMakom asserts that God is everywhere and everything: physical and spiritual, matter and energy. All of this makes up the oneness of God.
The contemplation of HaMakom during a time of pain, and coming closer to Him, can comfort the mourner with the realization that their loved one's physical death is only a part of the bigger picture. Just as their life was a part of God's plan, so too is their passing from this world to another yet more real world.
At the end of life, every soul returns to its Makom, to its unique place in the world.
The afterlife has always been an essential Jewish belief. Traditionally a great consolation for the mourner has been the thought that their loved one has been taken from this world of darkness to a world of eternal light, to the reward hidden away for the righteous in Gan Eden.
In the spiritual reality, nothing is lost: Not the beloved one's purpose, nor their goodness, and nor even their real existence. The soul continues to exist eternally. At the end of life, every soul returns to its Makom, to its unique "place" in the "world."
We tell the mourner: If you could see The Place where the deceased now dwells, you'd be comforted.
Peace In Israel
The latter half of the blessing – "among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem" – also requires explanation. What, after all, is the connection between The Place and the mourning over the Jewish homeland?
The Land of Israel is also HaMakom, the place on earth set aside by God as the Holy Land. The Sages say that the Land of Israel is one of the three things (along with Torah and the World to Come) which is acquired through suffering.
Therefore, all the suffering of the Jewish people in Israel today should itself be a form of comfort to us. For by virtue of the terrible loss of so many righteous and innocent Jews, we move closer to acquiring The Place that God promised us – permanently and in peace.
Sources: Lekach Tov; Kli Yakar, Rabbi E.E. Dessler; Rabbi Shmuel Geller; Rabbi Gavriel Kleinerman