Yaakov Klein
Yaakov Klein
Author, Musician, and Lecturer

The Meron tragedy: Man’s fault or divine decree?

“Two things can be true at once” is one of my favorite expressions.

While this particular formulation belongs to political commentator Ben Shapiro, I feel that it is a uniquely Jewish concept.

Our tradition is chock-full of dualities, and truth, through its ancient-modern lens, is seen as a multi-faceted entity. From the general construct of the “Pardes” (Peshat, Remez, Derush, Sod) approach to Torah interpretation to the more specific credo of “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim” (“these and those are the words of the Living God”) applied in both halachic and hashkafic disagreements, Judaism trains us to think in a nuanced, big-picture fashion. Treating the holistic entirety of existence itself which includes both a spiritual and physical plane as well as taking into account the innumerable factors present in each and the way they interact with one another, the Torah expects us to be able to analyze situations from every angle and respond on many, concurrent, levels.

But it isn’t always so easy to do. Rooted in a physical perception which can only see in one direction at a time, can only touch what is immediately before us, can only hear the sounds in our general vicinity, we often fail to consider the big picture which the Torah — speaking to the super-perceptive spiritual being within — has trained us to see. This is especially true of emotionally charged issues, where things very quickly become clouded. We rush to judgment. We generalize.

We adopt tired platitudes and stake our claim in lopsided positions that stubbornly refuse to consider any other angle. And in vocally projecting these positions — largely within our own echo chambers — and very rarely succeeding in changing any minds, we do a tremendous disservice to ourselves and those around us.

In the wake of the Meron Tragedy just shy of a week ago, it seems that there was, and continues to be, a great deal of confusion as to the proper reaction, personally and communally. While no official investigation has yet been conducted, and nobody really knows precisely what it is that led to the horrific deaths of 45 of our beloved brothers, there are a number of factors suggested by the currently available information that – in addition to expressions of emotional and practical empathy with the victim’s families — have been highlighted by different mainstream groups across the spectrum.

1. The first category of factors examines the broad, existential, cause of the tragedy. Who caused this – Hashem, or man?

The next two categories treat the specifics of these options.

2. If Hashem caused this, was it a unexplainable Divine Decree? Was it a punishment? (If so, for what?) Or was it a wakeup call? (If so, for what?)

3. If Man caused this, was it the government’s fault, for not asserting control over the site? The religious organizers of the event, for not taking safety seriously enough and refusing the offer of infrastructural improvement due to blind reliance on heavenly protection or a more practical fear of how external involvement might affect the sanctity of the site? Or was it the fault of police officers who may or may not have blocked a crucial exit (there are conflicting testimonies) — in best case due to an innocent mistake or a tragic misunderstanding of crowd control, in worst case maliciously?

Given the range of options, the knee-jerk responses to this horrific tragedy were, in most cases, highly predictable.

Without labeling or defining, there were many whose minds immediately, and very naturally, drifted to Hashem. If there is hashgacha-Provinence over every detail of our world, there must certainly be direct heavenly involvement in such a horrible tragedy occurring in such a place, at such a time.

The responses rooted in this perspective similarly ranged.

For some (this is clearly true of those who lost their family members in the tragic crush), this realization brought tremendous comfort. Hashem gives, and Hashem takes. Everything Hashem does is for the good. There is a Master Plan, one day we will see how this was for the best. Our job is to respond with silence, with simple faith in Hashem’s Goodness rooted in our inability to see the entirety of the picture. Passages from the Zohar circled on social media, bearing apparent reference to the death of the righteous as part and parcel of Rebbe Shimon’s Hilula, much like the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at the inauguration of the Mishkan. Gematriya references to the 45 victims in the context of Hashem’s promise to spare Sedom in the merit of 45 tzaddikim made the rounds together with statements from tzaddikim that a tragedy on an incomprehensibly greater scale was averted as a result of what happened. These souls were hand-picked to study in Rebbe Shimon’s yeshiva. This was all a hidden act of enormous Kindness from Hashem.

Others reacted by seeing what had happened as a divine punishment for our sins, or as a wake-up-call to urge us to improve in a great variety of religious objectives related to the nature of the tragedy (trying not to metaphorically “step on others” etc., more unity etc.)

Still others in this camp, however, were slammed with a particularly insidious crisis of faith. How could Hashem have done such a thing? How could innocent children have been taken in such a horrific way? All of the victims were there to serve Hashem – they had just been reaffirmed their commitment to Hashem and His Torah together, recited “Shema Yisrael”, and sang “Ani Maamin” with hearts bursting with love and soaring hope for the coming of Moshiach. How could such a thing have been allowed to happen? Where was Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai’s protection?

But all in this camp agreed — this was a God-made disaster. Man had nothing to do with it.

The other major camp, who couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around the former reactions, immediately began to ask, “Who is responsible for this?” From their perspective, man was the cause of this tragedy, which meant two things: justice must be served, and that our response must be practical in nature, to make sure that something like this can never, ever happen again.

The issue quickly became an opportunity to point fingers in all-too-familiar direction. For some, it was the Israeli government. For others, it was the organizers of the event and their historical predecessors (and, for a handful, all “ultra-orthodox” Jews, why not. Oh, and also every aspect of their entire religious mindset as a whole. Sure.) For yet others, general safety of the entire event aside, this tragedy was directly caused by the police who had blocked off the exit.

But all in this camp agreed — this was a man-made disaster. God had nothing to do with it.

Now, of course, this too is a generalization, both in the sense of leaving out the detailed sources/arguments relevant to each of the aforementioned positions as well as to the extent that those holding these positions denied the validity of any other. But for the sake of stark simplification (at the risk, as always, of oversimplification), these were the general mainstream reactions and the assumptions/world-views in which they were rooted.

Allow me to read with you a verse in Mishlei (19:3). The verse states:

“Man’s folly corrupts his way, and he grows angry at God.”

Fascinatingly, we find two approaches to this verse in the commentaries.

The Ralbag (and, so it seems, the Gra), holds that this verse is speaking about a person who does not do proper Hishtadlus – practical efforts, and who then gets angry at Hashem when things go wrong. According to this approach, Shlomo HaMelech is decrying one whose own actions or inactions lead to disaster and then brings Hashem into the picture as if it were His fault when, in fact, what happened was nothing more than a direct affect of his own decisions.

Practically all other commentaries (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Alshich, Malbim etc.) see this verse very differently. They hold that this verse is referring to a person whose sins awaken the middas haDin, causing things to go wrong in his life, who then questions Hashem’s justice, wondering why He caused these things to happen for apparently no reason. According to this approach, Shlomo HaMelech is stressing Hashem’s involvement in every circumstance and the way in which there is a Divine calculation at work in the ebb and flow of this-worldly events.

Two vastly different approaches. One verse.

But perhaps this is the point.

Perhaps this is the greatest example of the rule with which we began: two things can be true at once.

I’ll be the first to admit: I was firmly in the first camp with regard to my response.

My knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy was entirely God-focused. It was in that sphere that my response (and struggle) developed, and, while vaguely aware of the alternative approach, I felt it was inappropriate to think in this way so close to the enormity of the tragedy as well as irrelevant to the more emotional reception of what had happened by the broken hearts of my general circles. Looking back, I still feel that this was the appropriate, human, response in the days immediately following the tragedy.

However, as I began to recover from the traumatic shock of this event and gain a little bit more clarity into the matter, I began to listen more carefully to all sides.

It quickly became clear that there is merit to the other position as well, and that this tragedy must be approached in a very practical manner with responsibility taken and “mentchlichkeit” (in the words of the Karlin-Stolin Rebbe) being adopted by those purported to be in charge as well as a thorough and transparent investigation launched to find out what role the police may have played.

Still, I do not think that these two approaches need to be mutually exclusive, as they are presented by some. I feel that it is possible to hold any of the above positions and still incorporate the other elements into a more holistic view and response. To take an extreme example, one can be convinced that the police were directly responsible, and yet also agree that the general site was not safe and needs to be drastically improved. Such a person can also passionately believe that this was a Divine Decree, either an expression of hidden Chessed or revealed Din – as a punishment for our sins or as a wake-up call. Similarly, one can hold that this was a Divine Decree, foretold in the Zohar and various other sources, and still concede that practical measures need to be put in place to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

The goal (an elusive one, admittedly) is a synthesis between Bitachon and Hishtadlus, Hishtadlus and Bitachon.

In this regard, I think that no matter what our knee-jerk reaction to this tragedy, we all have a lot to learn from each other.

Those (like myself) who are bitachon-inclined should think deeply about the manner in which this proclivity to believe in spiritual protection and the power of tzaddikim as well as immediately attribute everything to Hashem (all wonderful things!) might lead to unnecessary challenges in emunah as well as taking hishtadlus less seriously than the Torah itself demands, which can — in extreme cases — lead to loss of life.

Those (like commenters on my early posts regarding the tragedy whose position, at that point, I too quickly brushed aside) who are hishtadlus-inclined should think deeply about the manner in which this near-total reliance on man’s role and belief solely in cause and effect as it appears from our limited perspective might lead to a shallow interpretation of events and the denial of deeper meaning/messages in loss, which can – in extreme cases – lead to the stultification of one’s spiritual life, the very life our physical living is intended to allow us to foster.

In addition to all the takeaways mentioned above – rooted in both physical and spiritual, God and man, hishtadlus and bitachon, heart and mind — I think my primary takeaway from my personal processing of the Meron Tragedy was an experiential extension of my favorite expression:

Two things can be true at once — and denying either can lead to uniquely dire consequences.

About the Author
Yaakov Klein is an author, lecturer, and musician sharing the inner light of the Torah, His books "Sparks from Berditchov" and "Sunlight of Redemption" (Feldheim), as well as his numerous articles on various topics, have reached and inspired many thousands of Jews all over the world. His next book, "The Story of Our Lives", an in-depth elucidation of Rebbe Nachman's famous story, The Lost Princess, will be in stores soon. Stay tuned!
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