Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

The Meron tragedy: Some reflections

Your just acts are like the mighty mountains; Your judgements are unfathomable …. (Psalms 36:7)

As I write these words, the whole Jewish world is reeling from the news of the tragic loss of 45 lives at Meron on Lag baOmer..  We feel deeply for their grieving families..

Why G-D sent this tragedy to us on Lag baOmer on all days – the day commemorating the abatement of a deadly plague and a day of rejoicing – and at the tomb of Rashbi of all places, only He ultimately knows. His judgements are “river-deep and mountain-high”. As the Kotsker Rebbe famously said, if we would understand Him we would be Him.  One small consoling effect is that the tragic accident generated a brief wave of much-needed akhdut (unity) in Israel and has even drawn sympathy in the world’s media. Now the whole world is knowledgeable about a lightweight Jewish festival called Lag baOmer! Would that the awareness could have come about in happier circumstances…

I had not intended to write about this.  Too much has already been written. However, in one of those uncanny more-than-just-coincidences which I frequently experience, the Daf Yomi (page-of-the-day of Talmud),for 20th Iyyar, two days after the tragedy, contained two such pertinent, in-your-face messages that I almost froze..

Firstly: The Gemara (Yoma 21a) declares: Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: At the time when Am Yisrael went up to the Temple [on pilgrimage] they stood crowded together yet prostrated themselves with ample space.

This is one of the ten miracles cited in Pirkei Avot (5:7) that were performed in Shlomo’s Bet Mikdash.  Fascinatingly if we look at the other nine miracles, we see that, they are not of the supernatural splitting-of-the-Sea / falling-of-the Manna ilk. Rather they are of the kind that might be described as quasi-natural, albeit so statistically unlikely as to patently demonstrate the Divine hand.. For example, no fly was ever seen in the place where the sanctified meat was prepared; no woman miscarried because of the aroma of the meat; the meat never became putrid; no snake or scorpion ever caused injury; no embarrassing accident ever befell the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. In this company, the crowding-together-yet-ample space miracle appears to stand out as something much more supernatural. The Shelah, R’ Isaiah Horovitz (c. 1555-1630) perceives an added dimension to this miracle and offers the following exquisite homiletic explanation.  He declares: When people are standing tall with their own pride and selfishness they feel “crowded”; everyone seems to be in their way.  But when they “prostrate themselves” by acting humbly and bending their own wishes to the needs of others, it is found that there is ample room for everybody.

These stand-out acts of G-D were, according to significant opinion (see Yerushalmi Yoma 1:4) confined to the First Temple when our people were on a superior level of spiritual refinement.  They were sadly not seen in the Second Temple when corruption was rife and the office of kohen Gadol was sold to the highest bidder..

What then should we say about our era when political corruption, misconduct, deception, duplicity, profiteering, palm-greasing, hubris, selfishness and betrayal – not to mention dissention, strife and disunity and even internecine hatred – have reached unprecedented levels all over the world even, no especially, in Israel?

We in our day cannot rely on miracles, even ‘natural’ ones.  To the contrary, it is incumbent upon us to be cautious and stay safe even when the danger is deemed slight.  Safety experts have been urging for years that numbers be controlled in Meron on Lag baOmer and no-one has listened – to our tragic and unspeakable cost.

The second message arising out of Yoma folio 21 is yet more startling than the first.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it is virtually unprecedented in our sources.

The Gemara discusses whether there was miraculous fire from heaven in the Second Temple like there was in the First and initially concludes that there was not. Then the Gemara backtracks and in a truly remarkable statement says: Yes there was Divine fire even in the Second Temple but it didn’t help to consume what was placed on the Altar.  In other words, – are my readers concentrating? – G-D sent fire down from Heaven but it didn’t make any difference as the offerings weren’t burnt.  Ordinary human fire had to be fuelled constantly [by human agency] before they would burn.

What is the Talmud saying? That G-D was – as if it were possible – incapable of producing fire adequate for the needs of the offering and that we had to finish the job? One can understand if there was no Godly fire as per the initial conclusion. G-D was hiding His face, He wasn’t getting involved. But for G-D to dispatch His fire to earth only for it to not make the slightest difference? Is G-D then ineffectual, chalila? How can we understand this?

May I suggest the following:  It is not that G-D is incapable. At times such as the Second Temple era – and such as now – when we are less than worthy of His extravagant bounty, He wants us to know that He is still there but He will not intervene! He is not going to put Himself out for us unless we help ourselves.  By practical means, yes.  But also by principled means.  By refining our conduct.  By being “fired up” in the right way, in a constructive way, in a way that will produce a better society, a better world. A world in which all corruption will cease. A world in which we will honour and respect each other and honour and respect G-D. and His manual for us on earth, namely the Torah and its mitsvot.

I believe G-D may be saying to us:  I am here! See My fire? That proves that I am here! It isn’t going to do the job for you though!  You want Me to help you more?  Then help yourselves!  You want to see beneficent wonders? Then be beneficently wonderful yourselves in your ethical, moral and spiritual conduct! You want to experience the benefits of My fire and My light? Then light up My world! Then you will be gobsmacked at what you see, what you experience and even what you understand!  

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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