WARNING: This essay will likely offend. I don’t mean to hurt people, but my comments are harsh and to the point, I’m not going to hold back. I consider these points too important to be silenced or diluted. I welcome your feedback, especially critical feedback.
These are my thoughts about the Meron tragedy. I try not to publish when emotional, especially when I’m upset. I’ve waited until my fury – there’s no other word for it – cooled and for the last burial to take place. Until now I felt we should be taking the time to mourn and comfort others; now the time for introspection has arrived.
I see myself primarily as an educator. It is my role to write my thoughts to teach what I, as a Rabbi, maintain is the proper perspective based on the Torah on events. My post will veer far from classic pesukim and halacha, but I believe them to be borne of the Torah and its hashkafa.
This catastrophe was completely preventable and unnecessary. No one should have died or been injured. We have no one to blame but ourselves. Large-scale tragedies in Israel are easier to handle when they’re perpetrated by an enemy. They’re challenging when they’re a result of a natural disaster, but when they’re due to human negligence, they’re impossible to comprehend. There was no enemy suicide bomber on Thursday night. We were our own enemy.
Many will see my words as divisive, hateful and disrespectful to Torah scholars. I don’t think it’s gratuitous hatred – sinas chinam – to publicly rebuke those who have erred when the public needs to correct the mistakes. It isn’t antisemitic or hating of Jews to point out societal flaws in Eretz Yisrael that have been causing people to die. When Jewish leaders abandon the ways of the Torah and resemble the charlatans you see on Sunday morning TV more than Roshei Yeshiva, it’s up to other rabbis, even know-nothings like me, to call them out.
Hashem created a world that is run by cause and effect. Our actions result in consequences. As much as we’d like to blame God for our mistakes, we cause most of the ills in our life, not God. Torah Judaism doesn’t believe in a blind faith that says it was all in God’s hands. The Gemara says when pain hits look at your own actions, not look to God and ask why He did it.
In this post, I will address five areas: The Israeli Government, Religious Leadership, The Proper Torah Hashkafa (outlook), America, Arabs and the Palestinians, and, last, Going Forward
The Israeli Government
25 years ago, I went to Meron on Lag Ba’omer. I do not enjoy dancing with other men and for that reason, I never returned. 25 years ago, it was too crowded, and I distinctly remember feeling that there wasn’t enough air and I had to get away from people. You don’t need a comptroller’s report to have known that there were too many people and not enough space. The fact that there were government reports saying it was unsafe, that politicians boasted a day before they circumvented the reports, makes the governments’ actions even more insidious.
People need to be held responsible. Politicians that pushed to allow more people need to resign, professionals who looked the other way need to be fired, and where the law demands, people need to go to jail. It shouldn’t be just those in charge this year that are penalized. Those in past years who looked the other way created a culture of permissibility that allowed this year’s leaders to rely on past years. They too need to be held responsible.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose grave is the cause of the mass gathering on Lag Ba’omer in Meron, famously maintained a person wasn’t allowed to do anything but study Torah. Working was out of the question. The Talmud relates his initial impatience with someone preparing for Shabbat. I can’t even imagine his response at 100,000 men stopping Torah study to travel hours on a bus to sing and dance at his grave. What a waste of time that could be spent learning Torah! Yet, as time goes on we create more and more of these “obligatory” events that our ancestors would never have partaken of, let alone allowed.
Anyone that knows “The True Meron” knows the infighting between Chassidishe Rabbeim for their own “honorable” spots and the money they earn from these spots. These same men claim “daas Torah,” and the ability to predict the future, confer blessings on followers that will heal them, make them wealthy and result in all sorts of miraculous outcomes. Yet these same leaders, standing 50 feet in the air, with a bird’s eye view of the dangerous pathways that any mere human recognized was unsafe, couldn’t see the coming danger and encouraged their followers to come in droves.
Aryeh Deri, not just a politician, but a rabbi, said that no one had to worry about danger. Secular police inspectors and health officials had no idea what they were talking about because the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai would protect everyone there, and besides no one is ever harmed when performing a mitzvah. He should have to stand and while resigning, explain what mitzvah was being performed on Mount Meron, and teach the next line of the Gemara that someone fulfilling a mitzvah is only promised protection when they’re in a safe place, but in a place of risk and danger, they can’t rely on being protected by the mitzvah.
What is a bigger desecration than telling people they’ll be protected and then watching as they’re killed? He said this the day before Lag Ba’Omer this year while boasting he bested the health inspectors who wanted to limit the number of participants to 9,000 and Deri convinced them to move it to 100,000. If he was truly responsible for forcing them to move the numbers higher, he is responsible for the death, injury and trauma.
Rabbis like me are guilty too. For years, including this year, I told my students to go to Meron. I thought “Jewish cultural” events that are unique and zany lend to a Jew’s experience. I felt 18-year-olds would be inspired by seeing a little crazy a few times a year. I felt events like Meron on Lag B’Omer, dancing through the Muslim Quarter on Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot morning at the Kotel lend to the “Israel experience.” I thought it was worth missing a few hours in the Beis Medrash. My yearly encouragement was one of many voices that are to be blamed for creating such large crowds at Meron.
Many people confuse rabbis with God’s defense attorney or spokesperson. Our role is not defending or explaining God. There are events of this world that we can’t explain. The tragedy at Meron happened because people didn’t take proper precautions. Blaming God for man’s mistakes is absurd – even if you do so as an act of faith. True faith in God is understanding the physical world that God created and living by its laws.
Yet it is undeniable that this tragedy could have happened decades before and didn’t. On a metaphysical level God could’ve prevented this tragedy from happening and God didn’t. It is also undeniable that Jews have suffered through a rough year and just as we were thinking we’d turned a corner to better times with the vaccine this tragedy hit.
We responded with impressive unity. Haredim, Hilonim, Dati leumi, all came together. We provided food, shelter, even blood without caring who was hurt. We made sure we were there for each other. We prayed like never before and turned to Hashem for help.
Our rabbis have told us that when tragedy strikes, whether it’s enemy attacks like the seven terrorist attacks since Friday, or disease like COVID, or a catastrophe like Meron, we must repent and improve our ways. This doesn’t mean on an individual level – it means on a national level. We have yet to perform national teshuva. Where are our rabbis calling on everyone to light Shabbat candles just this week, or asking Jews worldwide to not speak loshon hara for one day? Something, anything, to have national repentance. That is the proper religious response to tragedy.
America, Arabs and Palestinians
I was encouraged by America’s response to the tragedy. President Biden called Prime Minister Netanyahu and stopped by to pay respects to Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, who was in the White House. Secretary of State Blinken released a statement, Jake Sullivan, NSA director did as well. Hundreds of members of Congress did too. The American Embassy in Jerusalem offered its help as well. It showed the close relationship our two nations enjoy.
Israeli Arabs showed their true colors. Villages up North brought out food and drinks, offered help and shelter and demonstrated what two people living in one nation can accomplish if we just see the humanity in us all.
Unfortunately, Palestinians showed the opposite. While individual Palestinians sent messages of condolences, they were in the silent minority. Literally, thousands of celebratory messages went from Palestinian cities and villages over the green line. Terror attacks have risen since Friday, opening the wounds of the Jewish people even more. It is as if they saw us at our most vulnerable and choose that point to attack.
What should we do going forward? We need to address all the areas I addressed above. We need a state inquiry to find out who was responsible, but even more importantly how can we make sure this, or anything like it, never happens again? The lawlessness that is allowed to occur because masses ignore the law – which we’ve known has been corrosive for decades but was shown during COVID and even more so on Lag Ba’omer must come to an end.
We also need a religious inquiry. The Chief Rabbinate must ask how events masquerading as Jewish religious ceremonies are allowed to happen and must stop them from ever occurring again. We simply can not have Jews put in physical harm under the false promises of divine protection for something God never even commanded.
Lastly, we need a national teshuva campaign. Someone must take the lead. We have the very best publicists and PR firms in the world in our land. Now is the time to put them to use. As a nation, we need to improve.