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Why does it take a catastrophe to unite us?
Thursday, the eve of Lag B’Omer, was a happy day for our family – the upsherin, the first haircut, of our three-year-old grandson. In our circles, we do not cut a boy’s hair until he reaches three. Our family gathered for the celebration. For the first time, little Michael donned a kippa and tzitzis (ritual fringes). He licked honey off cookies shaped like the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. His father recited with him certain Torah verses. Then each member of the family snipped off a lock of hair.
Many families go to Mt. Meron to do the upsherin, but our family chose to do it close to home, in Jerusalem.
Except for Covid-restricted last year, hundreds of thousands of people, almost 10% of Israel’s population, travel to Meron for Lag B’Omer. The date marks the yahrzeit of the 2nd century sage Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai, known as the author of the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah. Hasidim, Sephardim, and youths from every stripe, drawn by the charged spiritual and festive atmosphere, flock to the grave of Rebbi Shimon, perched atop a scenic mountain in the Galilee. Throughout Israel, Lag B’Omer is observed by lighting bonfires, commemorating the great light that Rebbi Shimon revealed to the world.
Although my husband and I didn’t travel to Meron, before going to bed Thursday night we watched the live streaming of the celebration. We saw the Toldos Aaron Rebbe seated on a platform, tens of thousands of Hasidim on bleachers jumping in time with the music, and the bonfire blazing next to the platform. Although I live barely a mile away from the Toldos Aaron community in Mea Shearim, truthfully I feel little kinship with them. They are anti-Zionists who are not my brand of Judaism. I watched them celebrate like a spectator at a foreign wedding.
Friday morning, I woke up to the tragic news – 45 dead in Meron, crushed to death in a narrow passageway next to the Toldos Aaron bonfire. Shock and sorrow filled me. On my computer, I compulsively read the Israeli news, as if more information would give me more understanding of the tragedy.
Then I came upon a headline that pierced at my heart: “RESCUE WORKERS SAY CELLPHONES OF THE DEAD INCESSANTLY RING WITH CALLS FROM MOM.” I am a mother of children. I could identify with the horror of frantic mothers repeatedly calling their children while the cellphones ring in pockets of bodies already deserted by the life they gave them. I burst into tears.
At 10:08, a message on our neighborhood WhatsApp group announced that a boy from Teaneck, New Jersey, studying at Shaalavim, a Zionist yeshivah, was missing. An American? My brand of Judaism? This tragedy was striking closer and closer to home.
In addition to the dead and the injured, thousands of young people would now be traumatized by this close encounter with violent death.
A few minutes later Batya, my friend and neighbor, announced on our WhatsApp group: “My son just walked in the door from Meron. He said his friends carried the niftarim [the dead] out.” Batya’s 17-year-old son had lost his father to a drowning accident eight years ago. I realized that in addition to the dead and the injured, thousands of young people would now be traumatized by this close encounter with violent death.
I called Batya. She was frantic about the son of a close friend who was missing. (The cellphone system crashed, so most of the survivors were unable to call home.) A couple hours later he was located. He was on a bus, without his shirt, because at Meron he had used it to cover the face of the dead boy beside him.
I was still reciting psalms for the boy from Teaneck when the announcement came that he was dead.
My husband came home from shul and informed me that a 13-year-old Jerusalem boy whose family had made aliyah from Passaic was missing. Later, we found out that he, too, was dead.
A phone call informed me that Avremi Nivin, the 21-year-old son of Rabbi Aryeh Nivin, whose personal growth chabura I had participated in for two years, was injured in Meron. Avremi is the son-in-law of Aish HaTorah’s Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser and his wife Leah. I immediately called Leah.
Sitting by Avremi’s hospital bed, she told me that he had been standing at the base of the wet, slippery ramp where hundreds of people had fallen on each other. Caught in the pile of bodies, he heard the man (or boy?) beneath him yell, “Get off me! I can’t breathe.” But Avremi was pinned down by the weight of bodies on top of him, unable to move. Moments later he heard the person below him take his final breaths.
Although traumatized, Avremi has no broken bones or internal injuries. The weight above him was so intense, however, that it crushed his cellphone.
Rebbetzin Leah Glaser, who had left the Toldos Aaron bonfire site some fifteen minutes before the catastrophe, told me that Jews from across the religious spectrum were there. “Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai is about achdut (Jewish unity),” she asserted. She reminded me of the Talmudic story: Hiding from a Roman death sentence, Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazer spent twelve years concealed in a cave, living off a carob tree and a spring of water that flowed past the cave. After Caesar’s death and the nullification of the decree, when they emerged after twelve years of studying the mystical profundities of Torah, Rebbi Shimon saw a Jewish farmer plowing his field. He became angered at such a mundane activity. His piercing, critical gaze subsequently burned whatever he looked at. He then heard a voice from Heaven, “Did you come out to destroy My world? Go back to your cave.” A year later, Rebbi Shimon again emerged, but with an entirely different understanding, one of deep love rather than criticism and superiority.
Villages throughout the North, including Arab and Druze villages, offered refreshments to the masses trying to make their way home, as well as accommodations for those stranded before Shabbat.
“The bonfires of Lag B’Omer,” summed up Rebbetzin Glaser, “are fires of love, not fires of judgment.”
Indeed, Israel responded to the tragedy with a unity usually seen only during wartime. So many people lined up to donate blood that many were turned away due to the surfeit. Villages throughout the North, including Arab and Druze villages, offered refreshments to the masses of people trying to make their way home from Meron, as well as accommodations for those stranded before Shabbat.
At 2:05 PM, while I was still reeling from the catastrophe, a forwarded Hebrew notice appeared on one of my WhatsApp groups. It read:
A sad morning also to you, friends –
The prophet Jeremiah said: “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the dead of the daughter of my people!”
Today let us all kindle a memorial candle for the elevation of the souls of the dead of Mt. Meron.
Even if we are not believers, it’s not really important where we stand or our personal opinions, or our political or national or religious worldview regarding the catastrophe.
All those we will keep to ourselves for a week or a month or longer, each in his way.
But today, Friday, Lag B’Omer, 5781 , please light one memorial candle, and spread [this message] to everyone you’re connected with.
Iris Sharon, Kibbutznik, Leftist, from Kibbutz Ma'abarot
This woman does not follow my brand of Judaism – nor that of the casualties of Mt. Meron – but she was reaching out, reaching up, above our differences, to clasp hands above our squabbling heads.
My husband got Iris Sharon’s phone number from information, and called her. He introduced himself as a Hareidi man from Jerusalem who had read her message. He wanted her to know that he had followed her suggestion to light a candle. Iris was surprised. “How did you get my WhatsApp message?” she asked.
I joined in the conversation and said it has spread through WhatsApp and I also forwarded it to my groups. I told her, “I am a Hareidi woman who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. I am politically and religiously right-wing, and I have very strong beliefs and opinions, but – ”
She interrupted me, chuckling, and said, “I’m the same way! I have very strong beliefs and opinions on the opposite end.”
“And you are my sister,” I told her earnestly.
“And you are my sister,” she echoed.
Why does it take a catastrophe to unite us?
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