Reflection on the Lag BaOmer Tragedy in Israel


Our Parasha for this week, Emor,  lists all  the festivals we are to observe throughout the year. The Torah first lists Shabbat, then the other festivals — Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur,Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. 

The Torah refers to these times as “Moadim”, the Hebrew word which we translate as “Festivals”. The root of the word “moadim” are the letters “yud” “ayin” “dalet” י-ע-ד which means “to appoint”. The “Moadim” are the “appointed times” for Jews to gather in worship. In Hebrew the three letter root “yud-ayin-dalet” יעד can be used with reference to either a time,  a place, or the people who gather. Thus, an “edah” עדה, or “congregation” is “a group of people assembled together for an appointment — that is, a special purpose”. The “ohel moed” אוהל מועד of the Torah is the tabernacle, the tent where Moses has his appointments with G-d. Shabbat and Festivals are also called “moadim מועדיםbecause these are appointed times for the Jewish people to gather. In modern Hebrew a “clubhouse” is called a “moadon”, מועדון a place of gathering. 

In this section of the Torah we are also commanded to count forty nine days starting with the day after Passover. These are the days leading up to Shavuot.  As you know, this counting is referred to as “Sefirat Ha-Omer”. This period is also a time of semi-mourning. According to tradition, an entire generation of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a pandemic during this time in the 2nd century of the common era. In memory of this, traditional Jews do not cut their hair once Passover starts, and do not attend events with live music or dancing. Nor do we  perform weddings during this time — all signs of mourning. However, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer — Lag Ba-omer — is a time of rejoicing. That was the day when the pandemic stopped. It is traditional to get a haircut on that day, perform weddings and engage in celebrations. In Israel people all over the country light bonfires and hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Mount Meron in Israel to visit the tomb of the famous Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who, according to tradition, is the author of the Zohar, the basis of the Jewish mystical tradition called Kaballah. 

As you have by now likely heard, yesterday’s celebration of Lag Ba-omer in Israel turned into a horrific tragedy. Instead of our mourning turning into joy, our joy turned into mourning.  Last year, the celebration of Lag Ba-omer on Mt. Meron was cancelled due to the Coronavirus. This year, with the situation in Israel improving,  tens of thousands of Israelis traveled to Mount Meron finally free to celebrate as they had in the past. The government had deployed thousands of police to ensure safety. Yet, for some reason, still unclear, a panic broke out and in the ensuing stampede 48 people were killed and hundreds injured. It is already being called Israel’s worst peacetime disaster. This evening we mourn the dead and pray for the physical and psychological healing of those who were injured, their families and the entire community. 

As the tragedy in Israel shows us, it is not always going to be “smooth sailing” as we emerge from the Pandemic and try to resume our normal lives. We may experience setbacks, stumbling blocks, a bit of trouble, although heaven forbid, nothing of the magnitude that occurred in Israel. Things may not go as we hope. Perhaps we can learn something about resilience from the catastrophe that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students back in the  2nd century. With the death of so many so far back  there was a grave danger that the Torah would be forgotten among the people of Israel. Yet despite his advanced age at the time, Rabbi Akiva began to teach anew, though he would never again have the 24,000 students he had spent a lifetime cultivating. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva was able to teach just  five — Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamuah — but from these five Torah education was able to rebuild and  flourish once again in the Land of Israel.

As we emerge from this Pandemic may we too rebuild,  may we too reorganize, may we too reset  and once again worship together on the Sabbaths and the Moadim — our appointed times.

Shabbat Shalom