Robin Diamond
Robin Diamond

Hashkafa on the tragedy in Meron: Rabbi Mendel Kessin

Rabbi’s Introduction:
At the time of this lecture, the coming Shabbat’s bible portion is “Behar-Bechudotai.” That date is chaf-vav Iyar — 26 day of Iyar, and the omer count indicates: yesod, she’b’yesod—foundation of the foundation. It is the yahrzeit–memorial of RaMChal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto. The “hashkafa I use,” says the rabbi, is based on his teachings, so this shiur is lizchut — in merit of l’ilui neshmato — the elevation of his soul.

What happened on lag b’omer was an unbelievable tragedy. Forty-five people died and it moved Jews world-wide. The tragedy was compounded by having occurred on a day of joyous celebration. “How do we understand this? I’m not a prophet but sometimes G-d gives us a hint.”

This tragedy is a tremendous display of midas ha’din — attribute of G-d’s judgment. We know that the only way this could happen is if there is a kitrug—Heavenly prosecution in which the Satan, the Heavenly prosecuting attorney, “won.” Whatever his argument to the Court, it was found to be “true, and moving aside compassion,” G-d issues the judgement and the related consequence.

Without benefit of a prophet, we can figure out why this happened. When justice is meted out, it is always done within the parameter of mida k’neged mida–measure-for-measure, which is to say that when sin “A” is committed, “B” is not the consequence; the opposite of sin “A” is the consequence. “The consequence is always related to the sin itself.” We have to examine this incredibly brutal event because “it is not going to go away.”

“We’re not talking about Arabs killing Jews,” something that we’ve become accustomed to, particularly in Israel. Nor, the rabbi points out, are we talking about Gentiles killing Jews. It is not yet known for certain the exact circumstances that resulted in this tragedy, but it is thought that a crowd was descending a stairway and someone fell and the momentum of motion of people from behind pressing forward resulted in an amassing of bodies atop each other. In essence, we have Jews killing Jews, Hareidim killing Hareidim. “This is incredible! G-d arranged for orthodox Jews to kill Jews — inadvertently, of course.”

Had one Jew died that would be tragic, “but forty-five?” says the rabbi incredulously.

The next important aspect to note is that, of all days of the year, this happened on lag b’omer, this special day marked by achdus — unity. Jews come from far and wide to be together celebrating the enormous contribution of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at the place of his burial. Anybody who has ever been there — with the singing and dancing — knows the emotional high of that experience. Lag b’omer is so joyous, that this celebration happens world-wide. “How bizarre is it that this colossal tragedy should happen on that day!”

Another bizarre aspect is that this celebration commemorates the life of Rabbi Shimon who was “no ordinary Jew; he was incredible.” The Gemara relates that there was no rainbow during the time that Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, lived. The rainbow symbolizes the covenant between G-d and Creation, that He would not bring another Flood to destroy the world. But the sight of a rainbow reminds us that, despite the covenant, the world deserves to be destroyed. The absence of the appearance of a rainbow during Reb Shimon and Reb Elazar’s generation is a testament to the protection their lives afforded it. In light of this, how is it possible then that on lag b’omer, the celebration of his life, he could not protect the celebrants?

All these aspects the rabbi mentioned “reveal what happened…in this national tragedy and which will never be forgotten.” How did people die? The manner of death seems to have been asphyxiation. Is there a hint in this?

THE STORY OF RAV SHIMON

We must go back 2,000 years to the time of Rabbi Shimon and his son. The Gemara relates a story about Reb Shimon, Reb Yossi, and Reb Yehuda who were talking among themselves. They are the tannaim — rabbinic sages whose views comprise Mishna,, the major transmitters of the Oral Law, and all were students of the famous Rebbe Akiva. They were discussing the actions of the Roman government. Rabbi Yehuda credited the Romans with having built infrastructure. Rabbi Yossi considered this opinion but “was silent.” Rabbi Shimon disagreed. He said that these actions were not commendable but self-serving. Even if Romans were wicked, we know that G-d often turns that wickedness into a benefit for others–in this case, infrastructure. Rabbi Shimon’s argument was that the hedonistic Romans, preoccupied with their pleasures and comforts and their desire for wealth and power, enhanced infrastructure for their own benefit and to justify collecting more taxes, upping tribute paid to them. It coincidentally benefited the average citizen.

Unbeknownst to the three, Rabbi Shimon’s student, Rabbi Yehuda ben Gerim, overheard this discussion and casually shared its content with those within his sphere of influence. Though he didn’t intend for the content to go beyond his group, it “leaked out” to the Roman authorities. Because these Jews were of illustrious reputation and importance, the Romans were compelled to take action. They decreed that Rabbi Yehuda would be “elevated,” honored as a diplomat. Reb Yossi’s silence conferred upon him the decree of exile. Rabbi Shimon was condemned to death. He and his son fled to a cave at Teki’in near Meron.

How were they to be fed? G-d placed a carob tree nearby. A spring of water sprouted miraculously. They lived in the cave for twelve years! During that time, they were taught, miraculously, by Eliyahu ha’Navi. Rebbe Shimon completed composing the Zohar, the great kabbalistic text. By the time they emerged from the cave, they had become extraordinarily spiritually great. After twelve years, Eliyahu appeared and notified them that Caesar had died and the decree was rescinded. But upon returning to the world, they were dismayed that Jews were engaged in what they considered trivial, mundane pursuits. A confrontation with one farmer as to the rebbe’s consternation that farming, not Torah study, was at the forefront of the farmer’s activities resulted in the farmer’s death. He was overcome by the spiritual power of Rabbi Shimon’s gaze. Immediately a bas kol—a Divine voice that only the spiritually-gifted can hear said, “Have you come out of seclusion to destroy My world? Return to the cave1″ They did. A year later, both had “cooled off, and it was o.k.”

Rav Pinchas ben Yair, a reputed miracle worker and towering figure in the Jewish world (it isn’t clear whether he was Rav Shimon’s father-in-law or son-in-law) was reputed to be able to answer the most challenging questions with many thoughtful answers — whether 7 or 13, it is not clear. It is claimed that, by the time Rav Shimon emerged from seclusion, he could do the same, provide erudite and scholarly answers to any questions as Rav Pinchas was known to do.

LOSHON HA’RA

This story of the leaked information is very important. Why? The answer lies in what got Rav Shimon in trouble. Rav Shimon was correct in thinking that G-d takes the negative aspects and somehow creates some sort of benefit from it and that the Roman’s motives were not altruistic at all. Even though Rav Shimon was forced to be reclusive for more than twelve years, and was able to compose the Zohar and became great spiritually so Jews could benefit from it, there was a problem.

That problem was caused by Rav Yehuda ben Gerim who shared the content of their discussion. It was his actions that resulted in the death sentence of Rav Shimon. Sharing the content of that discussion is an example of rechilus, a particularly serious form of harmful speech. When “A” tells “B,” (the listener) what “C” did to him which was detrimental, it creates tremendous ill-feeling and hatred in “B” toward “C.” Despite Rav Shimon’s correct assessment of the Romans, Rav Yehuda ben Gerim should have realized that such information was potentially lethal to Rav Shimon. His exile to the cave was a direct result of Rav Yehuda ben Gerim’s rechilus, “absolutely forbidden speech.” Sometime after Rabbi Shimon returned to the world, he met Rav Yehuda who said incredulously, “You’re still alive?” at which, the Gemara relates, Rav Yehuda immediately turned “into a heap of bones.”

Because Rav Shimon’s life was “turned-around” by loshon ha’ra, he was incredibly sensitive to the enormous destructon that slander can cause. In the “Talmud Yerushalmi,” (Brachos) Rav Shimon says that, had he been at matan Torah—the giving of the Torah, he would have begged G-d to create mankind with two mouths, one for Torah study and one for regular speech. He retracted that statement having realized that with two mouths, people would inevitably speak twice as much loshon ha’ra.

The sin of loshon ha’ra is why the Jews in Meron died — “not these Jews in particular” — but why it happened as it did. Jews killing Jews. Loshon ha’ra can destroy a reputation, ostracize people from society, destroy livelihood — destroy them. We see this all the time on the internet with social media, television, magazines…. Someone is slandered and no one knows who, and how many, heard the information, nor can the victim defend himself. Perhaps millions got wind of the defamation. People have committed suicide from this.

The Jews are guilty of loshon ha’ra and rechilus. The Satan says, “they dance and celebrate in unity but then go home and speak ill of each other.” The measure-for-measure consequence of the kitrug—prosecutorial action accusing Jews of speaking loshon ha’ra is expressed in Jews killing Jews in Meron. The loshon ha’ra of orthodox Jews is particularly unfathomable since they know full well it is forbidden by Torah. The Jewish nation overall “is steeped” in such language via talk radio, email, text messaging, social media platforms. The internet is one of the greatest “killing devices ever made.” It causes sinas chinam—baseless hatred which is the generally-accepted cause of the destruction of the Second Temple.

Why these 45 people? The rabbi emphasizes that he, in no way, is accusing those who died of being guilty of loshon ha’ra. On the contrary, the rabbi points out, they were “holy” and “quiet” and akin to unblemished sacrifices. We don’t know why G-d chose them. It is “an onesh — punishment which preserves the nation.”

PROPITIOUS TIMES & MESSIANIC POTENTIAL

Why now? After a protracted period of failed elections, failed attempts at government, the harmful speech has become even worse.

Participant: What about the effect of Covid, when the Hareidim became the target of blame for spreading the infection?

The rabbi recommended that this subject be brought up later in the lecture.

Returning to the question of “why on lag b’omer?” It is as if G-d says, “On the day of achdut and joy, you afterwards go home and destroy people? This is hypocrisy!” Why can’t Rav Shimon protect us? His sensitivity to the issue made him unable to “counter the prosecution” in the Heavenly Tribunal since he himself suffered terribly from the loshon ha’ra given over to the Romans.

Here, the rabbi reviews how loshon ha’ra renders us assailable, susceptible to harm. When we speak loshon ha’ra, we become subject to judgment ourselves, and can be harmed, measure-for-measure. As the rabbi puts it, “our file in Heaven is opened” and scrutinized. We condemn others and so the Satan condemns us in the form of prosecution. “Ninety-five percent of the problems a person has stems from this,” the rabbi estimates.

Since this is the case, mashiach can’t come. The Chofetz Chaim, in his famous work “Shmiras ha’Loshon” — guarding one’s speech explains that engaging in chronic loshon ha’ra has the effect of constantly exposing our sins to the Satan so he is always prosecuting them. In that case, how can the mashiach come?

From a recent lecture about the holiday itself, the rabbi reminds us that the date of lag b’omer — 18th of Iyar — is a propitious one for a surge of messianic Light to enter Creation. There is an argument between Rebbe Yoshua and Rebbe Eliezer as to the date of Creation and this impacts the reckoning of the dates as potent signifiers of messianic potential.

Rebbe Eliezer says that Creation began on 25th of Elul, six days before the creation of Man on the 1st of Tishrei. According to this, the Flood should have happened on the 11th of Cheshvan though it happened on 18th due to the death of Methuselah.

Rebbe Yoshua holds that Creation commenced on 25th of Adar which dates mankind’s creation on the 1st of Nisan. Based on this assertion, the Flood happened on 18th of Iyar which is lag b’omer — the 33rd day of the omer count.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death on lag b’omer, was the day of the Flood as calculated by Rebbe Yoshua. It was the date that G-d transposed the Flood from water to Rebbe Shimon’s Kabbalah, knowledge considered the “surface ohr rishon,” the introduction of the messianic Light. Ten generations from primordial Adam, that messianic Light which G-d intended to “flood” the world, turned instead to a deluge of death and utter destruction. Those generations were steeped in depravity and utterly failed to rectify Creation, as was their task. What should have been the “saturation” of the world with messianic Light, became saturation with water.

Lag b’omer should be the time for the messianic Light to come down. With these deaths on lag b’omer it’s as if G-d is saying: “This lag b’omer, mashiach should have come. What stops him? Loshon ha’ra. You have failed to use the day that could bring the mashiach…” therefore, on that day, came the punishment. It is also why Rav Shimon couldn’t protect us because, in addition to his sensitivity to the phenomenon, the 18th of Iyar is the day he died, a propitious time for the Light to permeate the world had loshon ha’ra not precluded it. So, “what could he say?”

There is another link to lag b’omer as a day affiliated with messianic power and which points to the cause of the tragedy in Meron. For five weeks, from the second day of Passover when the omer counting begins until lag b’omer, the students of Rabbi Akiva were dying. Why? The cause is thought to be that they dishonored each other. This reasoning is fine-tuned by Maharsha and the Chofetz Chaim who maintain that the students spoke loshon ha’ra. The deaths of 24,000 students was catastrophic for the Jewish people who have been denied the novel insights into Torah they might have given over. It is told that they died of “askala” a breathing disorder, in essence, asphyxiation. Aside from the obvious connection to the disaster in Meron, the consequence is also measure-for-measure. One needs breath to speak, so breath is denied the speaker of loshon ha’ra.

Here, the rabbi reviews a point he made in a lecture from a year ago during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic: Covid, too, causes respiratory distress and, sometimes, death. This malady spread throughout the world indicating the extent to which slander and defamation poisons society and destroys lives. The world is enveloped in a “party of slander.”

Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on lag b’omer. In a certain sense, they died during the prelude to that auspicious day. This delivered the atonement so the dying ceased and a merit had been “earned” from both their deaths and the fact is was a “messianic day.” So, we see that the day could be the cessation of the punishment, or the reverse, as we saw in Meron.

This lecture is dedicated to RaMChal whose book “Tikkunim Chadashim”—new rectification. offers many “profound secrets.” RaMCHal reveals what loshon ha’ra does, kabbalistically. From these ideas, it is discernable why mashiach doesn’t come.

“The body represents the structure of Creation itself,” the rabbi says. As Creation is comprised of the ten sefiros—Divine emanations, the body is comprised of ten parts:

head has three parts: keter—crown, chochma-intellect, bina—understanding, corresponding to the three brains: cerebrum, cerebellum, medulla.
right arm: chesed—compassion, kindness
left arm: gevurah—judgement
torso: tifferet—beauty, harmony
right leg: netzach–endurance
left leg: hod–humility
genitals: yesod—foundation, malchut—sovereignty, kingship

The predominant importance of the head warrants having its own ten parts:

3 brains….plus
2 ears = 5
2 eyes = 7
1 nose, 1 mouth, 1 tongue = 10

The mouth and tongue represent yesod and malchut. Yesod takes the Divine energy from all previous nine emanations and “pours” the sum of them into malchut which “energizes the entire Creation.” The RaMCHaL says something “absolutely stunning.” Since loshon ha’ra requires the use of the tongue and mouth, speaking it blocks the energy going from yesod into malchut. Blessing is withheld and the Divine energy goes, instead, to the Satan, the forces of evil.

How does this blockage retard the messianic advance? What does the pekidah–messianic advance, require? Yesod must “flow into” and join with malchut to release the yechida—soul of the messiahs, both ben Yosef and ben David. If the flow is halted, so is Redemption.

The rabbi reaffirms that the manner of 45 deaths, the date, and the occasion, reveal the meaning of it all. Again, the rabbi stresses that, like Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, who died of their great zeal to serve G-d, the deaths of the 45 in no way reflects any fault upon their souls. In fact, it reflects their righteous nature. Like Aaron’s sons, these men were the sacrifice to bring atonement. It is incumbent upon us all to share this understanding, to learn the principles that govern what constitutes this kind of speech so to avoid it. G-d wants to bring the mashiach “now,” says the rabbi emphatically.

Participant: Do you believe that the police deliberately planned this? There was video that implicates the police.

Rabbi: I don’t know. An investigation is being conducted. But I don’t believe that a Jew seeks to kill another Jew. My feeling is that, if the police are guilty, it was because of gross negligence. There was insufficient crowd control.

Participants describe video they’d seen depicting what could be deliberate attacks on the Hareidim by police. The rabbi reiterated that he cannot comment as to the extent to which malice and forethought caused death or injury. He expressed his hope that the appropriate parties would be held accountable once an investigation confirms wrongdoing. Should it be found that there was culpability, the rabbi expressed his expectation that integrity and honesty would bring them to hone up to what they’d done.

The rabbi makes clear that his interest is not about the logistics of the event itself but “its meaning in Heaven.”

Participant: Is it possible that those who perished are the gilgulim—reincarnate souls of Rabbi Akiva’s students who passed away?

Rabbi: Maybe.

Participant: I’ve heard that there are always 45 tzaddikim—righteous people who keep the world going. Could there be a connection between that and the number of those who died?

Rabbi: That number is 36, not 45.

Participant: What about that excerpt from the “Idra Rabba” that has been going around?

Rabbi: The “Idra Rabba” is a section of the Zohar, incredibly mystical and kabbalistic…. about a “great assemblage” in which Rav Shimon expounds upon mystical secrets with Eliyahu ha’Navi present. The portion being circulated as prophetic describes the eventual appearance of Eliyahu ha’Navi explaining that he would have come earlier but G-d commanded him to save the life of Rav Hamnuna who was imprisoned by the Romans. He pushed a wall down upon the 45 Romans killing them and saving Rav Hamnuna. Other than the number “45,” there is no connection I can see.

Participant: In one of the siddurim that belonged to one of the victims, it was discovered that, on the morning of the night he passed away, he had written some notes in it that are “almost prophetic.”

Rabbi: I am sure that there were some who were spared who could have died.

Participant: They were investigating a two-tiered platform which, miraculously, did not collapse despite that it was “frail” and should have collapsed under the weight.

Rabbi: In this we see G-d’s “tremendous compassion” in the sense that even when there is din—judgement, G-d “takes the minimal amount to satisfy it.” There are many stories that will be coming out.

Participant: It was found that the night before the event, the police were removing cameras from the area. When this was questioned, they didn’t listen and were “being nasty,” removing the cameras “very conveniently.”

Rabbi: That is hard to believe. It is against the whole concept of using cameras to prevent terror.

Participant: Is the judgement “quieted down” so we still have the possibility of the mashiach coming?

Rabbi: Yes. Remember, this kind of punishment satisfies the judgement. Nothing can move forward unless judgement is satisfied. It is like what happened to Rabbi Akiva’s students. That punishment not only involved the loss of life but the loss of Torah that had been invested in each student. How much more Torah knowledge would we have if they’d lived? As it is, we have to wait for mashiach to find out what has been missing. Once the judgement has been satisfied, the punishment eases. We find that in the punishment of makot—lashes. Having received such punishment, the sinner is “cleansed.”

A lot of the movement forward must be teshuva—repentance.

What G-d is doing in America is curtailing speech–interesting. People believe much of what they hear on tv, read in magazines, see on the internet. As a result, lives and reputations are adversely impacted so G-d makes it so that big tech and mainstream media censor speech. America has never seen such an attack on the first amendment.

The rabbi makes clear that he is not condoning this; he assigns its cause to the Divine Agenda. Negative speech “has to be curtailed because it is out of hand.” G-d wants to stop the “rampant global, pervasive plague of loshon ha’ra. For Jews, it is worse because mashiach doesn’t come. We ourselves are stopping the geulah—Redemption. In fact, the numerical value of the word “geulah” is “45.” This indicates that these holy souls that perished for the sins of loshon ha’ra was for sake of bringing the Redemption.

Participant: Most people won’t connect this tragedy to loshon ha’ra. G-d-willing this lecture will reach many people.

Rabbi: Yes, true. Every Jew must understand it is loshon ha’ra. This has to get out.

Participant: The biggest loshon ha’ra, the worst thing, was what has been happening in Israel, how the Hareidim were always being blamed for everything by the liberals, the Eirev Rav.

Rabbi: Yes, and nobody cares. It is astounding. You point out correctly this sina—hatred. But it is not only the secular Jews against the Hareidim. Hareidim, too, speak ill of each other. What has been happening in Israel is worse than loshon ha’ra which is harmful speech, even if it is true. This situation of defamation is based on lies. The most important characteristic Jews need to exhibit is achdut—unity and “it’s going down the drain.” It is tragic that G-d must use 45 precious souls to “make the point.”

Participant: What must we do to help?

The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation in Monsey N.Y.,which the rabbi helped found “does fine work in teaching about guarding one’s speech and deserves to be supported with donations.” The other recommendation the rabbi makes is to get a copy of the Chofetz Chaim’s book and learn the principles of what constitutes loshon ha’ra. Share it at the Shabbat table and learn two laws per day is what the rabbi recommends.

Imagine when the mashiach comes and hundreds of thousands gather to welcome him. Someone will ask him, “What brought you…finally? We’ve been waiting thousands of years?” He’ll put his hand in his jacket pocket, pull out a folded letter, and begin to read the names of all those who’ve been part of the movement to stop loshon ha’ra.

The Chofetz Chaim brings down an idea that the mashiach asks “Who would like to donate to the construction of the Third Temple?” What Jew wouldn’t wish to have his name on even one brick? Many would rush to donate. The Chofetz Chaim says, “I can give you a way to donate right now!” Every word, every sentence which avoids loshon ha’ra emplaces a brick to build the Heavenly Temple. “That is the End,” says the rabbi. With that begins the descent of the Heavenly Temple into the physical world. From there, the shechina goes out into the entire world and ends this nightmare called “galus”—exile.

The rabbi leaves us with the following: Imagine what the Jews felt when the Second Temple was destroyed, when the shechina left and the Romans took over. They had to move on and do teshuva—repent. The cause of its destruction was the same as that which has always been the underlying cause of our suffering–the cultivation of baseless hatred causing schisms among the people.

PRIMORDIAL TRUTH

The first recorded conversation in the history of Creation was between Adam Chava and the serpent—the Satan. Already, there was slander, bad-mouthing, accusations that G-d was lying about why Adam was forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Although that command was given for mankind’s good, the serpent lied saying it was for G-d’s good, that G-d derived His powers from the tree and “didn’t want Adam to rival him” by eating from it too. This invoked hatred of G-d, making Chava suspicious of G-d’s motives and goodness. In the first recorded conversation in all of history, we have all three types of loshon ha’ra: slander, defamation and informing!

We begin to understand what underlies so many of the tragic events in Jewish history, heinous crimes of speech culminating in terrible sacrifices to atone for them. Taking action to inform others, to warn them of the dangers of such speech will result in bringing brachot–blessings for yourselves and Redemption to the world.

Participant: Can the mashiach come on days other than the ones mentioned during Iyar and Cheshvan?

Rabbi: He can come before the ohr rishon—First Light, the messianic Light. He himself has to get out of his prison–so to speak—just like the Jews do. The great Light, the Third Temple, comes down after he appears to us rehabilitated, he along with the Jewish nation.

Lastly, the rabbi encourages all who hear his lecture to copy it to discs or, otherwise, share its contents.

About the Author
Robin is a retired Language Arts high school teacher who taught in the Los Angeles Unified District for 25 years. After retiring in 2010, she hurriedly made aliyah in 2011.
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