‘Hamakom’ (The place) - short story

A short story about Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and a name for God, Hamakom.

 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

I don’t know exactly why, but a number of years ago while residing in Toronto, I agreed to join a “mission” to Israel. If you are wondering what a “mission” to Israel is, well, let me first tell you what it is not. It is not about joining the Mossad or about taking part in some clandestine activity on behalf of the Israeli government or the IDF. Neither is it about delivering a coded message or a secret package to a stranger in dark glasses seated on a park bench ostensibly reading a newspaper. 

A “mission” to Israel is but an inflated title bestowed upon an organized group of tourists in order to imbue the group with a meaningful, noble, and serious purpose rather than calling it what it is – a whirlwind luxury tour which delights in five-star hotel breakfasts, schmoozes with local dignitaries, all the while traveling the country in air-conditioned buses with wifi and washrooms. The “mission” title is frequently invoked by the organizers to confer an air of pompous respectability and grandiose self-importance for the benefit of the participants, each of whom has shelled out a hefty fee for the privilege of joining the mission and receiving a complimentary color coded T-shirt and matching baseball cap. Such a glorified group tour was not something I would typically identify with, but I had been working hard through that long winter and the ice had not begun to melt. I needed a break. And besides, having recently divorced, there were a number of other single and divorced Members of the Tribe who had signed on to the mission, making it more accessible than the usual tours that celebrated a different couple’s wedding anniversary every night. 

Skipping the introductory “meet and greet,” I went straight to the airport, where I spotted the group flag at the El Al gate. I was welcomed by the group leader, who issued me a plastic name tag which I promptly discarded in the nearest trash bin. Upon hearing the boarding announcement, I hastened to find my seat at the back of the plane, an old El Al 767 aircraft. 

A typical frequent flier, I had my rituals. For one, I liked to board the plane early in order to secure an overhead bin for my carry-on bag. I also prefer an aisle seat, as the view through the tiny and foggy window no longer holds any excitement for my jaded eyes. Freedom of movement from the aisle as opposed to having to be occasionally inconvenienced by getting up from one’s seat to accommodate an interior passenger, nine out of ten times justified the aisle choice. Having said that, the one out of ten times that the window seat happens to be occupied either by a person with a weak bladder or who happens to be of a corpulent frame or, worse yet, both, is enough to make one consider paying for a last-minute upgrade despite its prohibitive cost.

As the plane filled up with passengers attempting to ram oversize luggage into undersized bins, it appeared that this might be my lucky flight, for no one had yet surveyed my row to check whether their seat number matched the window beside me. Having two seats to myself was a definite bonus on a 12-hour trans-Atlantic flight. But then, just as the first officer made an announcement for passengers to fasten seat belts, a large, burly and bearded man came lumbering down the aisle juggling a couple of bulky duty-free bags under his arm. I watched from my vantage point at the back of the plane as the man kept growing larger in size – both vertically and horizontally – as he neared my expressionless poker face. His enormous belly jiggled inches in front of my nose. Examining his boarding pass, he then scrutinized the cramped space by the window. I looked up and feigned a slight, polite smile. 

 An El Al plane flying above the clouds. (credit: IPTC/GPO)
An El Al plane flying above the clouds. (credit: IPTC/GPO)

I started to rise from my seat to let him pass, but he put out his hand indicating he had no intention of negotiating the task. “Do you mind if I take the aisle seat?” he asked. “I’m awful sorry, man, but there’s no way on Earth I can squeeze into that tight spot,” he said apologetically, pointing to the seat by the window. “I hope you don’t mind, bud,” he added nonchalantly with a slightly embarrassed smile.

Actually, I did mind, but he clearly had a valid point, and practicality was unerringly on his side. So, it seems, were all the other seated passengers anxiously waiting to take off and staring impatiently in our direction. Since there was no point making him attempt to fit his corpulent frame into the miniature window seat, other than perhaps my morbid curiosity as to whether he would succeed if he tried, I accepted my fate and slid over to the seat with the foggy view. 

“Pardon me,” he said as he let himself sink slowly into the aisle seat, swinging his duty free bags so close to my face that I could smell the assortment of aromatic Swiss chocolates inside. Instinctively, I put on my headphones as a sign to the world at large and to my neighbor in particular that I would be unavailable to engage in any polite conversation or small talk for as long as the headgear was visible and, ideally, for the duration of the 12-hour flight. 

As our plane climbed into the night sky, I tried to relax with some soft music and a glass of red wine before being served with a kosher “special meal” at 30,000 feet. Perhaps kosher it was but hardly special, so I decided to pass on dinner. Returning the meal, I shifted back to the ubiquitous reading assignments which I had planned for the journey. If for no other reason, I relished these long overseas flights for the chance to catch up on the reading of newspaper and magazine articles which otherwise just accumulated in my desk’s bottom drawer. Typically, I would begin with the newspapers for a strategic reason: Being voluminous, they could be disposed of en masse while still aboard the plane, thereby reducing the excess weight and clumsiness of the carry-on bags upon exiting. While today most reading material can be easily accessed on one’s smart phone, in those days we still believed in reading from actual, tactile newspapers, books and magazines. The fact of the matter is, I still prefer to read a magazine or book in its original form, to turning pages as opposed to scrolling through screens. Reading in this arcane manner while flying through the clouds in the daytime, with bright rays of sunlight illuminating the print, is still perhaps one of the most conducive ways for me to absorb new ideas or even to become inspired to write a few of my own. Indeed, I believe some of my most creative thoughts have originated while looking out the wing of a plane. 

I still enjoy reading a spectrum of opinions and editorials in both Hebrew and English. The newspaper which I would save for last invariably would be The Jerusalem Post. From a practical perspective, the Post was the smallest and most compact of all the newspapers; and because of the crinkly texture of the paper, it could be easily folded and squished multiple times and unceremoniously disposed of by mercilessly stuffing it into the seat compartment of the chair in front of me. Getting my fill of the weekly newspapers had me recall what Mark Twain had once astutely observed about the newspapers of his day more than a century ago: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed,” he declared, “but if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” 

My oversized seat mate cooperated considerately by sleeping for most of the flight; however, that caused a different sort of problem after my second glass of wine began to take effect. Logistically, I needed to get up to the washroom, but there appeared to be no way to do so without waking the giant grizzly bear of a man whose loud, sonorous snores were now causing the entire rear section to look over in our direction. Seeing that he was fast asleep, they fixed their mournful gazes on me as if I was somehow related to the poor fellow and had influence over his foghorn like tones. Assessing my only possible exit route, I managed to stand on the armrest of my seat, and with one hand on the headrest of the seat in front of me, deftly catapulted over my seat mate’s bulging midsection. A little boy from across the aisle clapped his hands in glee. “Mommy, can I jump over the man, too?” he asked.

On my return, and much to the delight of the same little boy, I was able to reverse the process by lowering myself back into my seat from the former eject position without so much as causing my neighbor to flinch. 

Traveling several hours into the dark night high above the imperceptible ocean below, I continued to read and “file” my coveted Jerusalem Posts. It was in the very last issue of my stack of papers that a feature attracted my attention. It was written by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a well-known and charismatic American rabbi who had founded the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York before making aliyah in 1983. Years ago, I had occasion to hear him speak at a Toronto synagogue and recalled a particular anecdote that he had told about his congregation. It seems that when Rabbi Riskin announced his decision to immigrate to Israel, many members of his loyal congregation were enthusiastic about joining him. A plan was drawn up to move the entire community to the Jewish town of Efrat, located some nine miles south of Jerusalem near Bethlehem. In the end, the rabbi was joined by about half of the original community. 

What happened to the other half? The ones who remained behind promised to join after each one in turn saved an additional sum of money that each had set as a personal goal. For some, the financial goal might have been ten thousand dollars; for others, fifty thousand or a hundred thousand; and still others set their sights higher on half a million or even a million dollars. All the idealists were intent on reaching their monetary goal and then joining the bold, Zionist venture. Human nature being what it is, however, all those who were holding out for an additional ten or twenty thousand dollars, once realized, then desired another ten or twenty thousand, and so on. Only those had who made the initial commitment to accompany the rabbi on his target date, no matter what, were the ones who ultimately succeeded to make aliyah and start new lives and careers in Israel.

In Rabbi Riskin’s story in the Post which I can still recall from memory though can only paraphrase today, he described a difficult visit that he once had to make to console an elderly rabbi, a Holocaust survivor whose son had been killed in a terrorist attack in Israel. Previously, this rabbi had lost his first wife and all of his children in the Holocaust. He had gone to Israel as a refugee after the war, remarried, and started a new family. And now tragedy had struck again. Rabbi Riskin paid a shiva call to the elder rabbi. Absorbing the depth of the rabbi’s anguish, Rabbi Riskin was bereft of words. In the presence of the mourners, he could only utter the customary words that came to mind, the traditional Hebrew words of consolation which are said to a mourner who has been stricken in grief: “Hamakom yinachem etchem toch shaar avelei Zion v’Yerushalayim”  – translated to English: “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

The grieving rabbi asked his younger colleague a question: “Do you know why we use this unusual name for God – ‘Hamakom’ – meaning ‘the place’ – in this consolation?”

“No, and as a matter of fact I have often wondered that myself,” replied Rabbi Riskin. 

“Well, let me tell you something about this name for God, Hamakom,” the elderly rabbi continued. “You see, when I lost my first wife and all of my children in the Holocaust, I could not be consoled. I was beyond being able to be consoled. I was a dead man walking. All the joy I had ever known in the world was bound up with my family, and now they were gone. Gone like ashes in the wind. I was in utter despair. Every day I wished for night to fall, and at night I wished for day to return, just to obliterate the present. But with God’s help, I persevered and made my way over here to Israel, and here I met my dear wife, and I got married again and started a new family. My son who was murdered, Hashem yikom damo, may God avenge his death, was born and raised here.” 

“And what does Hamakom – the place – have to do with it?” Rabbi Riskin asked.

The old rabbi nodded his head, anticipating the question. “Hamakom has everything to do with it,” he continued. “You see, while I am mourning the loss of my son, and believe me, we were as close as can be, I am mourning him here in Eretz Israel, in the Land of Israel, in the land of our people, and not on the ash heap of Europe where my first family disappeared through the smokestack of Auschwitz. Hamakom, the place – this place – comforts me,” he said emphatically as he stretched his arm out before him, overlooking the ancient hills on the horizon. “That is why we invoke this particular one of God’s names when we want to console someone in mourning.” 

I felt my eyelids growing heavy, and the newspaper dropped from my hand as a wave of deep sleep overtook me. The next thing I knew was the sensation of my wrist being tapped. When I opened my eyes, a uniformed flight attendant was standing over me.

“Sir, you have to fasten your seatbelt,” she said. “We will be landing shortly.”

I complied with the request, buckled up, and promptly fell back to sleep. The next time I awoke, the wheels of the plane were touching the ground and the passengers began to clap their hands, applauding the pilots for a smooth landing after nearly 12 hours in the skies. I looked over at my neighbor who had also just opened his eyes and handed him his duty-free bag, which must have fallen on me in my sleep. 

Inside the terminal, I joined the other members of the mission at the revolving carousel to collect our baggage, when suddenly an announcement came over the PA system and I heard my name being called.

“Please report immediately to the El Al information desk for an important message,” said the official-sounding female voice.

Before I could do that, an El Al agent approached some of the others of our group, and I watched as they huddled together and began to point in my direction. The agent came right over and handed me a cellphone, saying there was a call for me.

Howard Rypp, a close friend and theater producer originally from Canada residing in Tel Aviv, was on the line.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he hesitated.

“What is it?” I persisted, sensing something terrible had happened. 

“I’m so sorry,” he continued. “It’s your father…” 

“What happened?” I asked but not really wanting to know what I already knew.

“I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you,” he said. “Your father passed away last night...in Florida,” he continued. “Your mother is on the way back from there. They are going to wait for you for the funeral. I’m so sorry…”

I handed the phone back to the El Al agent.

“I’m very sorry,” he said. 

Surreal, I thought. It was always a joyous, exhilarating occasion to arrive in Israel, and now all I was hearing from everyone around me was how sorry they were.

In the fog of the moment, I was trying to remember the last time I had seen my father. My parents had been in Florida for about a month, spending the winter there. They had planned to come first to Toronto from Winnipeg for a long weekend, but my mother caught a cold and couldn’t travel. 

Dad was going to cancel the trip, but Mom insisted that he come alone in order to visit and spend some quality time with my daughter, Avia, who was eight years old at the time. As it happened, the two of them spent most of that weekend together playing games and having fun like only a grandchild and a grandparent can have. 

Visions of my tearful mother flying back to her home, alone, with my father’s body in cold storage in the baggage compartment of the same flight interrupted the previous warm memories of Avia with her Zeyda. “I must call my mother,” I thought, but first I needed to take a few minutes for myself, to absorb the shock that was rapidly settling in.

The mission departed the airport with some awkward goodbyes and more “sorries” than I could handle. I was left alone by my travel bag as the carousel came to a stop. The El Al agent returned and put his hand on my shoulder. “We just want you to know that we have already arranged for you to be on the next flight back to Toronto. As a matter of fact, it is this same airplane which will be turning around in about six hours. You don’t have to wait for your suitcase; it’s taken care of and will be on the return flight. You are welcome to remain in the lounge until boarding. Is there anything else I can do?” he asked sympathetically.

There was just one thing I wanted to know. 

“Is it possible for me to leave the airport to get some air and return?”

“Why certainly,” he said and pointed to the nearest door. “Just show them my card if you need to.” He pulled out a card from his jacket and handed it to me. 

I felt an urgent need for fresh air and headed for the nearest door that would allow me to step outside the terminal. While I have been to Ben-Gurion International Airport several dozens of times, I had no idea where I was when I walked outside the terminal that night. All I knew is that there were no cars and that there were several trees, for the first thing that struck me was the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms in full bloom. I knew that unmistakable scent from the past. It hangs in the night air like the most fragrant of perfumes and satiates one’s soul with a lingering and pleasurable olfactory sensation.  My head was spinning after the long flight and being given the shocking news upon arrival. News of the sudden death of a loved one strikes in an instant and shatters our perception of time and space, even altering the physical world which surrounds us. The world I had once known, I knew had disappeared. Only fragments would remain from here on in, and most of them would be locked and sealed tight in my memory.

A full yellow moon shone brightly and warmly through the orange grove. I thought I might have entered King David’s private orchard in his Jerusalem palace courtyard or perhaps I momentarily slipped through another dimension. Inhaling the aromatic orange flavors, I believe I tasted a glorious remnant of the Garden of Eden. Breathing in the pungent orange blossoms was the very antidote I required to repel the dark tunnel which had burrowed deeply into my consciousness.

It was a powerful scent, the orange blossoms. Unique to the Land of Israel, it was now connecting with my sensory memory and shielding me from impending darkness. I knew that scent, could identify its molecules and taste its fragrance, which made me feel simultaneously sedate and at ease. Inexplicably, the initial anxiety that had blindsided me had given way to a peaceful state of serenity and calm.

And then, all of a sudden, I remembered. The story! Rabbi Riskin’s story that I read on the airplane before I fell into the deep sleep. Hamakom! The place! Somehow, after being shocked to my core and decimated, upon stepping outside and walking a few steps in that tiny orchard in the land of Israel, I felt undeniably calm and comforted. I inhaled the sweet aroma and, like the spices of the havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of the Sabbath, I was overwhelmed by a sensory wave of sheer tranquility. 

My consciousness was flooded with questions. Was I purposely brought across an ocean, a continent and a sea, in order to be in the one place that I have always regarded as my spiritual home, in order to soften this harsh blow? My father and I were so very close, resembled each other in so many ways, that only by being in Israel, with a love of the land that we shared, could I be fortified to absorb the magnitude of his loss. Like the old rabbi in Rabbi Riskin’s story, I felt strangely comforted though the blow I had taken was still fresh, hurting and painful. 

Upon returning to the terminal, I placed what I knew would be a very difficult telephone call to my mother. She had exhausted her own tears and kept repeating how terrible this must be for me to have to receive such devastating news alone, so far from home and having to turn back in a matter of hours and board another interminably long trans-Atlantic flight. I tried my best to explain how unusual it was, but that on the contrary, I could think of no better place to have received such devastating news than where I was, in Israel. But this was neither time nor place for metaphysical meanderings. “I’m all right, Mom. Trust me. Please don’t worry anymore. I will be home as soon as I can.” 

I then called a friend, a young Israeli woman who, prior to my departure, I had made dinner plans with for this very evening. I had met Etti, a dark-haired beauty of Yemenite heritage on the last night of my previous visit to Israel several months earlier. We found ourselves sharing a taxi to the airport a few days after a suicide bomber had blown himself up in the heart of Jerusalem, killing several civilians, one of whom happened to be Etti’s childhood friend. 

We were looking to meet again under more pleasant circumstances, but once again death interrupted life. I picked up the phone to cancel our dinner date. Like so many other young Israelis inured to the news of sudden death or violence, she offered her condolences; and as there is no use making small talk after declaring sad news, she repeated the common Hebrew phrase “Shelo teda od tza’ar.” “May you not know further sorrow.”

I returned to sit on a bench by the orange trees until the first rays of light of early dawn. Slowly, passengers started to arrive, children and luggage on wheels in tow. This time, I was last to board the plane, and it really did not matter to me one way or the other, not where I would be seated nor when I would arrive.

I looked outside my window as the flight took off and watched as that tiny sliver of contentious land slowly separated from the emerging sea. From somewhere in the depths of my heart, I promised to return again. I searched the sky for the angels that are said to escort our comings and going to the Land, but in the early morning wispy mist I could not discern neither the wings of angels nor the wings of the airplane. 


It was some years later after relocating to Israel that I happened to be back in Toronto for a brief visit when a notice caught my attention. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from the town of Efrat, Israel, would be appearing that evening at a local Toronto synagogue to give a talk open to the public. Even though I had heard him speak once before, I changed my plans so that I could attend. Following his thought-provoking talk, I waited patiently to exchange a few words with him as the crowd thinned out.

“Rabbi,” I approached him, “do you remember having written an article for The Jerusalem Post about visiting an old rabbi and Holocaust survivor who was mourning the loss of his son?”

“Why yes, certainly I do,” he said, recalling the name of the elder rabbi who had long since passed away. “But I don’t remember just now what prompted me to write that story.”

“I believe I may have an inkling about that,” I said, somewhat presumptuously. He looked at me curiously, and I proceeded to tell him how his meaningful story had impacted upon me.

When I finished, Rabbi Riskin nodded his head in silence. “You never know sometimes why we do things when we do them,” he said after a long pause. “But now I know why I may have had to write that particular piece when I did. It must have been intended for you to read,” he said with a wide-eyed smile as we shook hands. 

“Well, thank you for writing that,” I said. “It’s been years, but I’ve never forgotten how Eretz Israel – the Land of Israel – was able to console me at such a terrible time.” Someone in the Rabbi’s entourage grabbed his arm and started to gently pull him away. “May Hamakom be with you, Rabbi!” I called out after him, but I don’t think that he heard me. 

Walking outside, I looked up at the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere illuminated by row upon row of shining stars sparkling like polished diamonds as far as the eye could see. I was glad for the closure, for having had this opportunity to thank Rabbi Riskin in person for telling that story which helped me to come to terms with the blow of my father’s passing. Looking up at the myriad stars shivering in the moonlight I, too, felt a shiver run up and down my spine as I contemplated just how many “coincidences” had made it possible for me to uncover that story with its hidden message precisely on my flight to Israel. 

Why was I brought halfway around the world only to receive a message that would immediately send me back again?

Was this really somehow meant for my benefit, I wondered. Surely I was getting carried away. Looking up and seeing all those dizzying stars, I suppose it just made me want to connect a few of the dots.  ■

Gabriel Emanuel©2023