From bonfire to memorial flame: The teacher learns a lesson

Our tiny country has an outsized share of distinctions: most Nobel laureates per capita, most start-up successes, most technological innovations… but also most calamities and tragically avoidable disasters, or at least so it seems. Last night’s tragedy on Mount Meron is particularly painful. 45 people were killed — crushed in a stampede on a narrow walkway as they left the Lag B’Omer bonfire celebrations on the mountain. Hundreds more were injured, many of them now in the hospital. The victims were headed home after a night of religious celebration, dancing and singing at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The irony of the event is clear: This date in our history marks the end of an ancient plague. How ironic that this year’s Lag B’Omer celebrations marked the end of a new plague year: last night’s gatherings on Mount Meron were made possible by Israel’s successful COVID-19 vaccination program, ending our year of lockdowns.

The Lag B’Omer festivities on Mount Meron honor the life of Rabbi Bar Yochai, a sage and mystic, who is said to have died on this day. The bonfires lit at the rabbi’s tomb are meant to celebrate Bar Yochai’s life and the light he brought through his teachings. One of the most famous kabbala mystical texts, the Zohar (radiance), is attributed to Bar Yochai. It is said that he instructed his students to celebrate his death, rather than mourn. The day is known as a Yom Hillula — a day of festivity.

Festivity turned to tragedy just after midnight last night, as crowds of people began streaming away from the event, rushing along the walkway that led down the mountainside. The walkway was slippery and far too narrow for the size of the crowd. Thousands of people, including many children were caught in the crush.

It is easy for us to sit in judgment the day after a tragedy, assigning blame from a comfortable distance. Inadequate preparation, insufficient police presence, failure to heed guidelines limiting the number of attendees…  But it will be some time before we know the details, before we can understand how this disaster happened. The news brought me back instantly to another tragedy: the collapse of the bridge over the Yarkon River at the Maccabiah Games in 1997. My friends and I watched in horror as that tragedy happened. Four Australian athletes died that night. Last night’s disaster was multiplied tenfold. How much of these catastrophes could have been prevented? My quick-to-judge Israeli mind says both these tragedies were entirely avoidable, though common sense tells me that we may never know for sure.

As a secular Israeli, I am prone to prejudice against the ultra-Orthodox. I live in Ramat Gan, next door to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities in Bnei Brak. This past year, during the height of the pandemic, our mayor was criticized for erecting fences to block off access between Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan. I must admit that I was one of the many Ramat Gan residents who applauded his move. I write and teach about tolerance and acceptance of others. But the sad fact is that I am as guilty as anyone of prejudgment and bias.

Today, I feel none of the scorn I felt for these people before. Today I feel only pain and grief. Sadly, it took this tragedy for me to see that these people are, in fact, my people. They are my neighbors, my compatriots.  We have wildly different outlooks and beliefs, but we all share a common homeland. Today, the teacher has learned a new lesson: It is not enough to teach tolerance with words. I must internalize the message. In the future, I must feel true empathy for my neighbors. Just as I feel for my Arab neighbors, I must also make room in my heart for the others, the ones in the black coats and large-brimmed hats.

It took a tragedy on a mountain in the north of the country to make me see. As the bonfires on Mount Meron ebb this morning, memorial candles are being lit. Families mourn and a country wakes up to the news of another tragedy which might have been averted. A nation mourns. And a teacher learns a lesson.

Bonfire turns to memorial flame – photocollage by N. Bresler

Nili Bresler is a trainer and business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, she was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. In her spare time, she manages communications for the non-profit, NATAN International Humanitarian Aid. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives happily in Ramat Gan.

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