“I will put things on the table here. I, Shimon Lavi, the northern district commander, for better or worse, bear overall responsibility,” he admitted. “We uncompromisingly prepared for all of the scenarios relating to safety. I can tell you that at the moment, we are at the stage of gathering evidence. There’s a complex effort here to gather evidence to properly get to the truth.” (Shimon Lavi, Northern District Police Commander of the Israel Police, 30 April, 2021)
Celebration. Narrow corridor. Severe overcrowding. One slips. Another trips. Many fall. Panic. Rush to escape. People trampled. Many suffocated. 45 died. Multitudes injured. National day of mourning proclaimed.
I started to pen this less than 48 hours after disaster struck in the north of Israel at a place called Meron. Then I stopped. Almost immediately after the event that resulted in the deaths of almost four dozen people, accusations flew back and forth as part of the “blame game”. It’s easy to point an accusing finger at someone, particularly when it seems as though that is the consensus of popular opinion and, particularly, when all the facts are not known. Rather than join the throng, I opted to wait until most of the funerals were over and there was more information available.
A little background could prove helpful. The particular type of gathering that took place on Mt. Meron is referred to a “Yom Hillula”, an annual day of remembering the death of a great rabbinical sage, who taught Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and/or piety. Those who refer to themselves as pietists today are called “Hasidim”. Unlike an annual memorial of someone who passed away, which is usually a day of sadness, the “Yom Hillula” is a time of joyful celebration.
This annual celebration takes place on the day known as Lag BaOmer, or the 33rd day of the counting of the “omer” (a measure of barley) – the counting of 49 days from the beginning of the time of the grain harvest, following the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the day immediately following Passover, to the celebration on the 50th day known as the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot or Pentecost, according to Deuteronomy 16:9-12 and Leviticus 23:10-16). The Hebrew word “Lag” is from the numerical value of the two Hebrew letters “lamed” (=30) and “gimel” (=3). Throughout the year, multitudes of Jews visit the gravesite of the Rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai, (referred to as “the Rashbi”) a famous 1st-century Jewish sage, who was one of the students of the renowned Rabbi Akiva. Many believe Shimon bar Yochai to be the greatest teacher of Torah of his generation. And, Jewish tradition holds that he revealed the “secrets” of the Torah on the day of his death, in the Kabbalistic (mystic) work known as the Zohar. According to the Zohar, on the day of his death, as he taught his students, the Rashbi’s house was filled with fire and light and when the fire subsided at the end of the day, Rabbi Shimon died. On successive years, his students sought to recreate that experience of light and mystical revelation by kindling bonfires and studying the Zohar in the light of the flames, accompanied by singing and dancing. The occasion is celebrated in Israel with the lighting of bonfires throughout the land and a time for many to gather socially, particularly youth, a large portion of which are secular.
For the more religiously orthodox, the annual remembrance of the Rashbi’s death could be a time for getting married, the first cutting of the hair of a child who reached the age of three, and celebrations of different kinds throughout the night. In particular, multitudes journey to his gravesite in Meron in the belief that if they pray at the gravesite of a righteous person (a “tzadik”), God is more likely to grant their requests. There would be recitations from the Psalms and with the sunrise, a multitude of prayers would be lifted up.
On this particular occasion, thousands upon thousands gathered at midnight, waiting for the lighting of the bonfire that was soon to take place. The bonfires are symbolic, in part, of the spiritual light that the Rashbi was said to bring to the world. After the bonfire-lighting ceremony, as people began to celebrate and dance, singing with expressions of faith in the coming of a Redeemer and looking forward to the beginning of the Messianic era, an announcement was made instructing people to immediately evacuate the area. It is not clear why that announcement was made. The tightly-packed multitudes began to head towards the exit away from the location of the lighting ceremony. More and more people jammed the narrow corridor, packed like sardines. Within minutes, around 01:00 a.m., some people stumbled and fell, others tripped over them and fell on them, trampling and crushing to death those on the bottom layer. Panic set in, which only made the situation worse, as the throng tried to find a way out. Family members were separated, friends were pushed apart by the thousands now cramming the narrow passageway. People were yelling and screaming. Young and old alike were pushed and stepped on. Some tried to break through metal barriers, others tried to jump over them.
Ambulances were called and rushed to the scene. Emergency workers tried to evacuate the dead and wounded. When the press of the crowds was over, the scene revealed a horror of bodies tramped to death – the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s modern history. The bodies spanned ages of generations. As the news of the disaster began to be made known, families and friends frantically tried to make contact with those who were present at the gathering and, failing to reach the person they were calling, they began to contact hospitals, hoping against hope that their loved ones were not among the injured, or worse, that they were not numbered among the casualties. When the dust literally settled, 45 participants in the celebration were dead, the light of their lives was extinguished. Multiple scores of others were wounded. Funerals were planned hastily (in Jewish law, a body needs to be buried within three days, except for extraordinary circumstances) and began to take place, one after the other, almost in an endless stream, both before Shabbat began and resumed immediately after the Shabbat was over. Emotion-filled eulogies were heart-rendering, as families bid tearful farewell to loved ones, young and not-so-young, sons, brothers, fathers, grandfathers and friends.
A national day of mourning was proclaimed and held on Monday, May 2nd. The day came, the day passed and almost all of the mourning was done by the families and friends of those who died and were injured.
While the victims were primarily from the various branches of orthodoxy, everyone wanted to know what happened, what caused the disaster, who was responsible and whether it could have been prevented.
When viewed in retrospect, many factors entered into the tragedy in Meron, both on the part of the participants, as well as on the part of those who were responsible for permitting and overseeing the event on behalf of officialdom. Politics played a part. Dysfunctional organization played a part. Lack of respect for health regulations, for the police and for other participants also contributed to the disaster. Allowing one sector of society to ignore restrictions in public gatherings and social distancing, while other sectors are strictly enforced, added greatly to the grievous failure what was intended to be a joyful celebration. But, the deaths and injuries were not the result of the coronavirus pandemic. They had to do with human, socio-political failings. The orthodox blamed the secular authorities, while the secular authorities placed the blame for the disaster squarely at the feet of the religious.
At first, I wanted to come to a conclusion for myself where to point the finger of blame. But, after looking at the situation as a whole and from the perspective of our behavior towards our fellow citizens, I understood all too painfully that the fault lies with the entire country. Lack of proper preparation, insuring the infrastructure of the location and allowing for easy ingress and egress, respect for other participants, pushing and shoving – an all too-normal part of our society, an attitude of superiority and lack of tolerance for those who don’t “believe” like we do, among many other factors, all contributed to the fiasco. And, despite the loss of dozens of lives and the injuries to scores of participants, we have lost sight of the tragedy that befell this nation. In the finger-pointing, we have pushed aside compassion and failed to relate to the national loss and to the individual pain that will forever be part of our history. Every future celebration of Lag BaOmer will contain a reminder of a tragedy that could have been avoided. Those who died were trampled upon by “their” brethren. But, they are all “our” brethren, part of this tiny nation, even if we have major differences in belief and behavior that tend to divide us. To quote a well-known expression: “Derech eretz kadma l’Torah”, colloquially meaning behavior or character comes before Torah (instruction). Or, put into everyday Yiddish: “Be a mensch!” Somewhere along the line, the greatest of all Jewish character traits has fallen by the wayside and was trampled upon along with the participants at Meron on Lag BaOmer. It is a national loss that man, by himself, is powerless to restore.
Still, this is a land of wonders and miracles, established by God for His glory. Nothing is impossible with Him (Jeremiah 32:17, 27). He is able to restore what has been lost (Job 42:10) with compassion (Deuteronomy 30:3; Isaiah 49:13) and deliver them by the LORD their God (Hosea 1:7).
Let us remember that we were put here for a purpose. We were not intended to be islands unto ourselves.
Bless, be blessed and be a blessing.