Tragedy is supposed to be a red alert for the prevention of future misfortune. But it doesn’t always work that way. People tend to forget the pain that has disappeared. If they didn’t, women would never give birth more than once.
The same attitude prevails with regard to anything else in which pain is repetitive, but not constant. It can be physical pain or emotional pain or both, but when it goes away, even temporarily, we don’t think about it.
That is what has happened for more than a century with regard to Mount Meron where 45 people met their deaths by falling and being trampled on by a stampede of humanity. For some inexplicable reason, the surging crowd did not feel the bodies beneath their feet.
Was it the ecstasy of being near the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that robbed them of their basic senses?
It can be understood that two or three people are affected that way – but not 50, not 100, not 200 – especially when those who have fallen are screaming out in pain for fear for their safety and their lives. But if those stampeding minions do not feel what lies beneath their feet, why should one expect them to hear the cries of the dying – people whom they have inadvertently killed?
Almost every year, there are casualties among the people who flock to Meron. Depending on whether the victims die or how seriously they are injured, their stories make media headlines for a day or two – and then it’s all forgotten – till the next time.
While Lag Ba’omer attracts the largest number of people in the tens of thousands, Sephardi Jews frequently come a week earlier and encamp there, usually staying till after Lag Ba’omer.
There’s also a pecking order for starting the Lag Ba’omer bonfires, beginning with the Boyaner Hassidim, followed by Toldot Aharon, then Karlin-Stoler Hassidim, then Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, followed by the Sephardim, who this year were led by former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and currently Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Moshe Amar, after whom came the Breslaver Hassidim led by Rabbi Shalom Arush.
In the predawn hours national religious leader Haim Druckman accompanied by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, lit yet another bonfire.
This incomplete listing is important for two reasons. Firstly it shows that Jews of all stripes, regardless of their differences or whether they are religious or secular, are drawn to Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer, but it also indicates, that there is a possibility to create some sort of order. Moreover, not everyone comes on the same day, and there are many who come in the month of or the week of Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day after Passover, on which according to legend, the plague that killed 24,000 of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, came to an end.
Rabbi Akiva’s star pupil was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, generally known as Rashbi, an acronym of the initials of his name, who died on the 18th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Iyar. Rashbi is credited with being the author of the Zohar, an esoteric work, which contains the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah, the mystic and most sacred texts in the handing down and development of Jewish tradition. Aside from that, the number 18, has a special connotation in Judaism, being the gematria for the word Life.
Rashbi’s powers are in many circles believed to extend beyond his final resting place, and throughout the year, people come to his grave to pray, and so many of these prayers have been answered – in particular those of young, single women looking for a bridegroom. Sometimes they come in packs to pray, and within a year nearly all of them are married, so he is regarded as a miracle worker – even in death.
In ultra-Orthodox communities Lag Ba’omer is also a time when three-year-old boys get their first haircut.
After this year’s calamity became known, but the deceased had not yet been identified, the number of injured had not been determined, and people who were missing had not yet been located, a member of ZAKA, the search and rescue unit that operates in disaster areas, said in a broken voice in a radio interview that he hoped that the victims did not include infant boys for whom this first mega event would be their last.
Fortunately, there were no three-year olds amongst the victims, but amongst the many orphans left fatherless, there was a two-week-old girl, and a four-year-old boy who recited Kaddish for his father at the funeral, and there were young children pulled out of the crowd by police, ZAKA and Magen David Adom. Two of the men killed in the stampede, were each the father of nine children. Among the young widows, who without warning suffered a change in status from wife to widow, at least one was pregnant.
However there was one positive feature. A grieving mother who could not find her son among the injured or the dead, sat at home weeping, when she received a telephone call on her mobile phone. She did not recognize the number of the caller, who told her that her son wanted to talk to her. She thought someone was playing a nasty trick on her, but a moment later, she heard her son’s voice. He had been unaware of the tragedy, and although he had wanted to call her when leaving Meron, all the telephone lines were down. He made his way to Tel Aviv and stayed with a friend, not knowing that people were looking for him.
Meanwhile, after a couple of days, the friend caught up with what had happened at Meron and also with the fact that the young man’s mother was frantic. He suggested that the young man call his mother to tell her that he was all right. The battery in the young man’s phone had died, so he asked his friend if he could use his phone to call his mother, so there was at least one happy ending.
Too many of the dead and injured – especially minors – did not have any form of identification, a factor which cries out for micro-chips to be implanted in new born babies listing their names, those of their parents, their blood types and any known allergies. How much easier and faster it would have been to identify the victims and spare their families the heartache of having to wait long hours at the National Institute for Forensic Medicine until they could be shown their loved ones for identification purposes. In Israel, the deceased must be identified by a first-degree relative before burial is permitted, though exceptions were made in the case of foreign yeshiva students who were identified by more distant relatives or friends, with confirmation on social media by immediate relatives who watched the funerals on Facebook or Zoom. As terrible a situation as this is, it is nonetheless an improvement on what families endured before such technology was available. In those days, there was no closure, because the families had not seen the body covered in a prayer shawl, nor had they witnessed the funeral.
For whatever reason, some Israeli families, running from hospital to hospital and finally realizing that their loved ones were at the Abu Kabir Institute for Forensic Medicine, were told after waiting outside for hours on Friday, to come back on Saturday night. There really is no excuse for causing such additional anguish.
Moreover, despite all the care that was taken, there was one case of mistaken identity which was discovered just before burial.
In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, people, particularly politicians, started playing the blame game. But there are too many organizations, institutions and individuals involved to be able to point the finger at any one group or individual.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the site and later went to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem where he gave blood, was called on to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. Had he done so immediately, he would have been accused of trying to mitigate his court case. In not doing so immediately, he was accused of being too involved with his political future and his legal woes to bother about finding out who was responsible.
Israel has a history of appointing committees merely for the sake of having done so. After the findings have been made public, there is seldom a next step, the most important being how to ensure that similar incidents can be prevented in the future.
What’s important here is to find a way to enable secular people to understand the ultra-Orthodox mindset. Whereas secularists were hurling blame in all directions, calling for ministers to resign and urging the establishment of a commission of enquiry, the ultra-orthodox community by and large, while weeping bitterly for lost sons – two Jerusalem fathers for two sons each – fathers and brothers accepted the calamity as a punishment for baseless hatred and incitement and for deviation from the path of Torah.
This kind of thinking is unacceptable in secular society where one of the essential values is for people to take responsibility for their mistakes and their misdeeds, and to resign from the prestige positions that they hold.
Neither attitude really solves anything. Time gets wasted in apportioning blame, especially if nothing is done afterwards.
In a Letter to the Editor of The Jerusalem Post, a reader suggested moving the remains of Rashbi to a site in which all the ground is level. It’s a logical idea, but unlikely to be translated into action, because once buried anywhere in Israel, it’s rare for remains to be transferred. It’s only when they’re buried abroad and reinterred in Israel that few if any people raise objections. But the staircases at Mount Meron are perilous, especially those without banisters.
Jerusalem’s second major cemetery Har Hamenuhot (The Mountain of Tranquility), also has many staircases, some with banisters, but also with mini terraces at different levels, ensuring that there is relatively large floor space at every 6-8 stairs, making such staircases safer than those at Mount Meron.
There should be monthly meetings of representatives of all the government, regional and religious bodies involved, and all suggestions for solutions to the problems posed by Mount Meron should be recorded and published on a website available to the general public, whose members could in turn make their opinions known in relation to any of the suggested solutions.
A united effort will not only make Mount Meron safer than it has been to date, but it will bring different sectors of the population closer to each other with greater respect and understanding for and of the other. It may not be ideal, but it will certainly lead to an all-round improvement.■