It was particularly challenging to prepare my sermon this past Shabbat. On Friday, the news of the unfolding tragedy in Meron was like a black storm cloud that hovered over us all day. The pain still cuts so deep.
What is there to say in response to such a disaster?
The answer is nothing.
G-d’s ways are mysterious and beyond human comprehension.
While each loss of life is tragic and heartbreaking, the pain feels even more personal for those of us in Bergen County, NJ. An extraordinary young man from our community, Donny Morris A”H, was among those killed in the stampede.
If only there were something to say to lessen the pain and ease the burden.
We confront tragedy with humility. We bow our heads and submit ourselves to a larger force that orchestrates events far beyond our limited understanding.
In addition to silence and humility, there is an important lesson to learn from this past week’s Torah portion.
Parshat Emor includes an outline of our annual holiday cycle, from Passover to Sukkot and every Biblical holiday in between. Curiously, in the midst of this list, sandwiched between the holiday of Shavuot and Rosh Hashana, the Torah records the mitzvah of Pe’ah. Pe’ah (literally corner) is the commandment for the farmer to leave the corners of his field unharvested so that the needy can freely take produce to eat.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his commentary, Meshech Chochmah, offers a beautiful suggestion to explain why the Torah places the mitzvah of Pe’ah before the holiday of Rosh Hashana.
Imagine what it is like to be a farmer, working and toiling in your field, day in and day out. You become, understandably so, very connected to your field and the produce that it grows.
Imagine for a moment that you had to open the gates of your field and let anyone in, and I mean anyone.
As opposed to other charitable gifts in the Torah, where the donor can decide to whom he or she will give the charity, when it comes Pe’ah the farmer’s field must open to all.
Now imagine that someone walks into your field, someone whom you think does not look poor at all. He is dressed in fancy clothes and is wearing designer shoes! This Jew needs Pe’ah?!?!
And yet, the Torah demands that the corner of your field stay accessible to all – without judgment.
Rav Meir Simcha explains that the Torah deliberately interrupts the cycle of the holidays to teach the laws of Pe’ah, because Pe’ah is a critical segue to Rosh Hashanah.
We spend our summer with the gates of our field open to anyone that needs. We then turn to G-d on Rosh Hashana and ask G-d to turn a blind eye to all of our blemishes and shortfalls, in the same fashion that we turned a blind eye to everyone who walked into our fields and collected Pe’ah. We assumed everyone was worthy and we ask G-d to do the same for us.
This message of the Torah is clear – despite our propensity to judge, don’t. Too often, we jump to conclusions without full knowledge. We think we know the facts, when, in reality, we do not know the entire story. In other words, don’t judge Jews by the cars they drive or by the clothes they wear.
What a critical lesson to consider at this painful time.
After all, the blame game has started in Meron.
The Charedim are to blame! Why can’t they follow the laws like all other Israeli citizens?
The police are at fault! How could they not be more prepared? Why didn’t they more effectively control the crowd?
The government has blood on its hands! How could they allow so many people to gather in such a small and dangerous location?
The Torah purposely inserts the mitzvah of Pe’ah before Rosh Hashana to remind us that we are not here to judge. To be certain, those who are responsible should be held accountable. Lessons must be learned to ensure that this type of tragedy never repeats itself.
But for now, our job is not to wag our fingers. As we grieve, the conversation does not need to center around how avoidable this tragedy was. Do not waste emotional energy criticizing whom you believe to be at fault.
Our job is simply to mourn. To hold the pain. To feel the immense grief that the Jewish People are currently enduring.
In 1997, Rabbi Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was interviewing a prospective student, and the young man asked Rabbi Taragin “Where are the best students going next year? I want to be with the best students.”
Rabbi Taragin asked him, “How do you define the best students?” and so the young man responded, “The ones who learn the most and daven the longest.”
Rabbi Taragin decided to challenge the student’s thinking. Around this time, there was a tragic helicopter crash in Israel that killed 73 soldiers. And so, Rabbi Taragin asked the young man how he reacted to that news. The young replied, “We said tehillim in class and in shul.”
Rabbi Taragin responded, “you know what we did in Israel? We sat in front of the TV and watched seventy-three funerals and we cried until we had no more tears to cry. That ability to cry when the Jewish people suffer is also part of serving G-d.”
Today we cry.
It is also a powerful moment to take stock in our sense of unity that transcends stereotypes. From bekishes, to knitted kippot, to no kippot at all, from long and twirly peyos, to no peyos at all, when Jewish families suffer, we all suffer.
Today we hold pain without rushing to judge.
Today we mourn a tragedy that is beyond words.