Mourning Mt. Meron
My heart goes out today to the families of those 45 men and boys killed yesterday during the stampede on Mt. Meron at the site of 2nd Century sage Shimon bar Yochai’s grave. It was the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history. Families have been devastated, members of our global Jewish community. And, so as a Jewish people, we mourn. And, the sorrow goes beyond the Jewish community. It is important to note that Arab citizens near Mt. Meron reached out to help. And, leaders throughout the Arab world and beyond have reached out with condolences. This is a tragedy that surpasses religious or ethnic distinctions.
But, it was also preventable. There had been warnings for years about the insufficient safety precautions at the site and about how attendance at the annual lag b’omer celebration far surpassed safe levels. In the last year, there have been ample warnings about dangers of such mass gatherings due to Covid. Still, tens of thousands of men and boys gathered. The site is overseen by the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox give secular warnings little credence.
Perhaps, the legend of Shimon bar Yochai could serve as an allegory. To escape the Romans, Shimon bar Yochai and his son retreated into a cave. A carob tree, providing food, and a well for water sprang up right before their cave. Shimon bar Yochai and his son did nothing but study Torah and eat from the provided carob tree for 12 long years. After 12 years, they tried to re-enter the greater world, but they couldn’t. They didn’t understand honest labor and they didn’t understand secular pursuits. Their presence, in fact, proved dangerous, so much so that they retreated once again into their cave. The ultra-Orthodox, by definition, retreat from public life. They prioritize Torah study over secular work. Israel’s political dynamics enables them with disproportional clout. They can say no to common sense safety precautions and not suffer consequences in places. Usually, the impact is limited. Yesterday, it was not.
So, let’s mourn the dead and support the families as a world Jewish community. But, soon, let’s hope that everybody gets out of their caves and works together to prevent future such tragedies.
Rabbi Debbie Cohen
Key Vocabulary from this week’s events
Lag B’Omer – Religious observant Jews begin counting at days at Passover to Shavuot, from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of receiving the Torah. There are restrictions during the “counting of the omer,” as the 49 days are called, including no haircuts, no weddings and no celebrations. But, on the 33rd day of the county, these restrictions are lifted. “Lag” literally means 33rd. According to tradition, many good things happened on Lag B’Omer in history, hence the reason for the reprieve. In Israel, it is celebrated with bonfires, pictures and, among the ultra-Orthodox, visits to grave of Shimon bar Yochai.
Shimon bar Yochai – Shimon bar Yochai was a 2nd Century sage, a disciple of the great Rabbi Akiba. He is credited with writing the Zohar, the seminal work of Kabbalah. Shimon bar Yochai is said to have died on Lag B’Omer and was buried on Mt. Meron.
Mt. Meron – A Mountain in the North of Israel, near the town of Safed, home to Kabbalah. See picture.