Fifteen years ago, in the spring of 2006 I embarked upon a once in a lifetime experience: I went with a group from Hebrew University to Meron, to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death, on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. I was overwhelmed by the site of hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews of all backgrounds coming together to celebrate this festive occasion. I recall free chulent being distributed in the streets, and massive bon-fires illuminating the darkness. And I recall feeling a deep connection with every one of the tens of thousands of my fellow Jews who ascended to this holy place to connect and to celebrate.
In addition to being the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passed away, Lag B’Omer was also the day in which the horrendous plague, which claimed the lives of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased. The Talmud relates that they perished because they didn’t properly respect each other. In that sense, this day marks a celebration of life.
Which makes it all the more confounding as to how, this past Thursday night, 45 people were trampled to death and many more were injured, while celebrating in this sacred place. 45 precious souls– young children, pairs of brothers, recently engaged grooms, newly-weds, fathers, sons, grandsons, expectant fathers.
I heard an idea quoted in the name of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik that in Hebrew, the word for “why” is lama. But if one breaks down the word lama, it really contains within it the word mah, or, “what.” We don’t know why incomprehensible tragedies happen. We have no idea. All we can do, is ponder the question, “what am I going to do about it?”
After reflecting about what I can do about this horrific tragedy, and what I can do to commemorate the memories of these precious souls, three ideas came to mind that I humbly want to share.
Firstly, this horrific event is a sobering reminder about the temporal nature of life. Every second G-d has given us is a gift. For some reason, He decided to summon these 45 special individuals back to His kisei hakavod, Throne of Glory. And for some reason, we remain here, in this world. We could have been there, and He could have taken us instead. But we remain. We need to cherish every second that we are here, make the most of the limited time we have in this world, and savor every second we have with our loved ones.
Secondly, in the Torah Portion we read the day after this tragedy, Parshas Emor, we are commanded to sanctify G-d’s name. What an appropriate tribute to these lofty souls, to actively seek out opportunities to reflect G-ds light, and sanctify His name by acting with honesty, integrity and kindness to everyone whom we encounter.
Finally, in light of the fact that Lag B’Omer marked the day that the plague caused by people disrespecting each other stopped, combined with the real tangible feeling of connection and unity that is part and parcel of the experience at Meron, it seems most appropriate to commemorate the victims of this tragedy through actively working to better love one another, and to treat each other with respect and kindness. It was, after all, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s teacher, the great Rabbi Akiva, whose students died during the plague, who declared, “loving your fellow like you love yourself is a huge principle in the Torah.”
Let us love one another, cherish each other, and let go of the petty things that drive us apart.
May G-d elevate their lofty pure souls, and provide comfort to their loved ones, families, and the entire grieving Jewish People.