“Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.” (Eicha 5:15)
My dad, of blessed memory, was a young and healthy 56-year-old when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was terrified. His best friend, a native of the town of Meron, convinced him to travel to Mt. Meron to plead his case with God. He believed that the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, known by his initials as the Rashbi, is a sacred space where prayers are answered. This was especially true, he believed, on Lag B’Omer, the anniversary of Rashbi’s death.
My father was a believer, so he decided to follow his friend’s advice. He started going there every year, praying for health and healing. He did so for a dozen years. It worked – for 12 years. Twelve years after cancer was first detected in his body, he died. As a man of deep faith, my dad, z”l, was convinced that the years he lived after the diagnosis of the deadly disease were at least partially due to Rashbi beseeching God on his behalf.
He was not unique.
Many thousands of Haredim share his belief that Meron is a contemporary sanctuary where one can experience an intimacy with the Divine and is consequently able to plead directly to God for emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
While such beliefs might feel strange and anathema to many, they are based on classical sources. There is a notion already in Chazal rabbinic literature that the burial place of the righteous is sacred ground. According to the Rabbis, that is where Moses, Jeremiah, and others turned to in times of suffering and communal distress. They went to pray at the burial grounds of our patriarchs and matriarchs.
The majority of people who were in Meron Thursday were there for similar reasons that my dad, z”l, went. They carried with them their aches and pain, hoping that the dancing and praying would allow them to return home bearing some healing and relief, for themselves or their loved ones. Instead, forty-five of them won’t be coming home at all, and everybody else who was there has little to show for their efforts aside from horror, destruction and devastation.
Their dancing indeed turned into mourning; their lives made even worse than they were before they set out on this annual pilgrimage.
Regardless of whether we share these beliefs, the attendees, those who perished and those who survived, are all pure souls who made the pilgrimage for lofty purposes. They were there in search for a tiny bit of קרבת אלוהים – a few moments of transcendent intimacy. They deserve nothing but our love, sympathy, and support. (The politicians, big and small, are another story, for another time.)
The flames of joy turned into a life-consuming inferno, paradoxically snuffing out lives, hopes, and aspirations.
“May He swallow up death [and abolish it] for all time. May God wipe away tears from all faces, and take away the disgrace of His people from all the earth.” (Isaiah 25:8)