45, 45, 45. 45.
45, 45, 45. 45.
Meron. A place of mysticism, of leaping flames, mass crowds, music and prayer. Lag BaOmer, a day to commemorate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s legacy, by coming to his kever. A day where even the skeptics among us pay homage to the mystical and celebrate the light of the Torah.
If you would have asked me before Friday morning what images I associated with Mount Meron, I would have described to you what I had seen in the official Meron livestream I watched on Thursday night. A sea of swaying figures in black, singing and dancing with joyous fervor, highlighted against the glow of the bonfires. A scene both fascinating and foreign to me.
Now everything has changed. In seconds, what began as a night of celebration collapsed into chaos and destruction. I sat all of Friday, glued to my computer screen, devouring the news reports. It is human nature to try to grasp the facts and seek explanations where no explanations can suffice. I could recite all the facts verbatim: Masses of people had been crammed into a narrow walkway, slipping down the mountain, people had fallen on top of each other and been crushed, children had been among the dead. I was numb.
All day, as the news unfolded and more facts emerged, I kept reading and learning, trying to make sense of what had happened. I looked at pictures of dusty velvet kippot, abandoned shoes. Crushed glasses left on a walkway strewn with debris. I watched a video of the Kaddish prayer, brokenly said by one of the ZAKA volunteers, and heard the roar of grief at the Amen Yehei Shmei Raba. Hatzala responders embraced each other and wept, shoulders heaving. People lined up to donate blood, desperate for the chance to do something. They urged us to pray for the missing, the injured who all too quickly joined the numbers of the dead. Our prime minister declared a national day of mourning for Sunday. World leaders expressed their shock and condolences. It was a colossal peacetime tragedy, unparalleled in Israel’s history.
I didn’t cry. I felt numb. 40, 41, 42. The numbers rose. Statistics are cold and impersonal. It was too great for my mind to process. Who were these people? 43,44. People posted about missing neighbors and tried to account for their loved ones who had been at Meron. I clicked refresh so many times on my news feed that my vision blurred.
Then, right before Shabbos, I saw the Facebook post. It was from the mother of Eliezer Yitzchak Koltai, who had been at Meron, pleading for information about her missing son. The words swam before my eyes in a mass of panic and fragile hope,
Have you seen him he’s lost is he on the bus to Jerusalem was he in the ambulance no one can find him he could still come home he’s only 13 did anyone see him did anyone see him did anyone see him, it’s almost Shabbos he must be so scared please please contact me with any information did anyone see him did anyone see him-
I knew this boy would not be coming home.
I have a brother who is almost 13. Like Eliezer, he has large frame glasses and a smile of a boy on the cusp of his teens. Like Eliezer, who had just celebrated his own, he has been preparing for his bar mitzvah. My brother also has a father who loves him, like Eliezer’s father who can be seen beaming proudly in the picture’s corner. I could imagine Eliezer’s excitement at going to Meron, because I knew how much my brother would have wanted to go.
maybe he’s on the bus-maybe he’s coming back-
The tears streamed down my face as I looked at this post. When I looked at Eliezer’s picture, I saw my brother.
The day of this tragedy, the 33rd Day of the Counting of the Omer was Lag BaOmer, a day celebrated in Jewish tradition as the day that the deadly plague that struck 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended. 24,000 is a large number, one almost impossible to conceptualize. Growing up, while I could state the reason for the mourning practices of the Omer with ease, I found it hard to grasp the magnitude of the loss. It took me years until I could imagine the loss for Jewish history and Rabbi Akiva – who lost 24,000 beloved disciples, 12,000 chavruta pairs. To the great Tanna who had painstakingly built a Torah empire long past the prime of his youth, he had lost 24,000 worlds.
We too have lost 45 worlds, 45 springs of potential.
Each name released is a story ended. Menachem Zeckback, from Modiin Ilit, who left behind a pregnant wife and a 1-year-old daughter. Shimon Matalon, a father of 11 children. Donny Morris, an American Shana Aleph student in Yeshivat Shaalvim whose beaming picture was shared all over social media with pleas for information from the authorities. There was Rabbi Yonatan Hebroni, a father of three from Givat Shmuel, the city where I live. Menachem Knoblowitz from Boro Park had been engaged to be married. Two sets of brothers. So many orphans. The youngest victim, Yehoshua Englard, had been 9 years old.
I cried as I finally realized what an entire day of news articles had not reminded me – that each of the 45 victims were fathers, husbands, friends, sons and yes, little brothers.
Rabbi Akiva also famously taught us, “You shall love your fellow as you love yourself.” In Israel, our tiny, passionately opinionated country, this can be extraordinarily difficult to do. We often mark ourselves by what we are not and seek to differentiate ourselves from the Other. They don’t dress like us. They don’t vote for the same parties, they have different opinions. We are a nation of distinctions. Religious and secular, Left and Right. Ultra-Orthodox and National Religious. An array of hats and cultures. It often takes tragedies to remind us of Rabbi Akiva’s words and the truth behind them- that what unites us is more important than what divides us. When I watched the Meron livestream on Thursday night, I saw the Other as a foreign mass of hats and shtreimels, with world views diametrically opposed to my own. I forgot they were fellow Jews. I mistook them for the face of an ideology where instead they were just.. people.
They were people who had worries and dreams and favorite foods, who shopped at Rami Levy and enjoyed the same Israeli sunshine. Each of the 45 victims had friends and family who loved them and who desperately wanted them home. After the cell phone reception collapsed, the medics reported how the phones of the dead kept ringing incessantly even after it became clear that no one would pick up. Because hope is a powerful thing and we never stop hoping.
These were people. Just like you and me. And on Friday, where politicians put aside their differences to grieve, where people throughout the country stood in the blistering sun for hours to donate blood to strangers who tomorrow they would go back to disagreeing with, this was so clear. 45 is a hard number to picture. It can be easier to hone in on where we disagree, to focus on what makes us different. But like Rabbi Akiva showed us, sometimes the veil of ‘the Other’ is lifted and the truth is revealed. Yes, we are different, but somehow very much the same.
Yehei Zichro Baruch.