I woke this morning to the kind of message that freezes the blood of any parent. “I’m sure you heard what happened in Meron. I just want you to know that I’m OK.”
No, I had not heard what had happened in Meron. And why wasn’t my daughter responding to calls and follow-up texts? Last night was her first visit to Meron. She video-called once she got there, her excitement palpitating through WhatsAapp. What had gone wrong?
Google filled in the details. And they’re shocking.
Meron on Lag BaOmer is other-worldly. You dance, you sing, you engage with a broad spectrum of Israeli society. It’s a time of joy, mysticism and miracles.
Last night, it became a time of horror.
It seems that a section of scaffolding collapsed. People were crushed, either in the fall or the scramble to get out. Lag BaOmer 5781 will be recorded as one of Israel’s worst peacetime tragedies.
It’s a tragedy not just for Israel, but for you, me and every Jew on Earth. The gloating antisemitic comments that sprouted as the bodies still lay there should remind us that the world sees us as one unit. That vitriol didn’t surprise me. The smattering of anti-Haredi comments that came just as quickly did.
Whatever your sentiment towards those “primitive” black coats might be, today’s not the day to share them. Those victims are fathers, sons, and brothers. They’re our brothers. Perhaps the quirky brothers with whom we’d rather not be seen in public. Brothers nonetheless. Re-read the antisemitic comments; they don’t say “Haredi” Jews died.
Back in the ’60s, when school-age Jewish rugby players faced off with their Afrikaner counterparts, they’d hear, “Los die bal, vat die Jood” (forget the ball, get the Jew). We Jews have plenty we disagree on, we just need to remember to play the issues, not the people.
If the Talmud has taught us one thing it’s that Jews will argue, but it needn’t divide us. Since Hillel and Shammai, Jews have haggled over everything from rice on Pesach to acceptable conversions. Our Sages jousted in the study halls but remained steadfast friends at shul. The semi-mourning of the Omer period marks a time when Jews lost their sense of mutual respect. And Lag BaOmer is meant to be the pause, the salve, the unity that heals.
The victims of last night’s disaster were at Meron to celebrate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was at least as Haredi as the populace of Meah Shearim. Before his passing, he instructed his students to commemorate his yartzeit annually as a “Hillula” celebration. The father of Jewish mysticism didn’t call for a Zohar marathon on his yartzeit. He didn’t even ask for extra Torah study. He wanted a celebration that would include all. Lag BaOmer isn’t a Haredi holiday; it’s a unity holiday. Bonfires dot the whole of Israel in a show of shared celebration that has no formal entry requirement.
Today’s Lag BaOmer carries a shared sense of pain and disbelief. The only appropriate response is to reach out with love and empathy. Now would be a good time to stop hurling chairs at each other in yeshivas and insults at each other online. The Talmud teaches that there is no better channel for blessing than peace. Outside of our community, there is more than enough hatred towards us. Within our community, we can only afford to suspend the imaginary labels and reconnect as family.