A Simple Cheshbon Nefesh: Why Did This Tragedy Occur?

Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene after a mass fatality scene during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ל"ג בעומר לג בעומר אסון קריסה במה מתים אנשים חסידים חרדים חג הר מרון הר מירון

JERUSALEM (VINnews) — Anyone watching the live feed of the celebrations at Meron Thursday evening could not fail to be impressed by the fervor, the joy, the spirituality and the tremendous unity of the tens of thousands of participants. After the 2020 break in which only a few people were permitted to enter, the sight of so many devout Jews dancing together with such achdus at the holy site was a wonderful memory after the harsh and heartbreaking year which we have suffered both in Israel and abroad.

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Scarcely four hours later, that fond memory has been overshadowed by the horrendous events which occurred after the lighting of Toldos Aharon. It is hard even to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy – tens of wonderful Jews crushed to death under the bodies of their brethren who would not have dreamed of hurting them but were themselves trying to survive a mad rush of people behind them. This was the ultimate nightmare, the scenario which numerous people had warned of in the past but which nobody was wise enough to prevent at the scene.

Surely it is our duty to ask ourselves why this calamity occurred and especially on the joyous day of Lag Ba’Omer when even the plague which befell Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased. The Rambam writes regarding tragedies that “if they will not cry and shout but say that this is the way of the world and tragedies happen, this is a cruel habit which causes them to maintain their evil ways.”

At the most simple level, this is a collosal failure on the part of the safety personnel. Whoever is responsible for safety procedures (and this is not entirely clear at Meron) should have immediately realized that a slippery slope- which was the cause of the tragedy – could be potentially fatal and therefore should not have allowed people to exit in large numbers.

However it behooves us to look a bit deeper and find a possible spiritual malaise which could have caused such a shocking calamity. Rabbi Akiva’s students died during the Omer because they did not “demonstrate respect for one another.” Rabbi Akiva himself said that loving one’s neighbor is a crucial aspect of Torah but his colleague Ben Azai said that “This is the history of man” is also crucial. Ben Azai is implying that the most fundamental aspect of Torah is to respect a human being for his humanity, even before we love them. Humans deserve basic rights simply because of their humanity.

During COVID-19 we learned to respect the space of others, to maintain a distance between us and others so we won’t infect or be infected. This taught us that each person’s space is inviolable, each person deserves his place and space. If one person impinges on another’s space he is showing disrespect to him. In a crowded situation people stand close to one another but if they respect each other, they will not push, shove, jostle or wriggle their way past others since this denies the other the space he needs.

Unfortunately on many occasions we tend not to maintain this basic requirement. At many funerals this writer has been lifted off his feet by crowds attempting to get closer to the bier. People have no compunction in pushing others out of the way in crowds, and this has become standard behavior. This must stop immediately. Already at the funeral of Rabbi Wozner there were warning signs that people are not conscious of the danger they present to others and 2 people were killed there. This should have aroused us into action but the present disaster must lead to real rethinking about how to behave in crowd situations. Crowds of any sort are dangerous, children can fall underfoot, the elderly have difficulty breathing in tight spaces, and any bottlenecks can be fatal. This is the lesson we need to learn – people deserve their kavod, people deserve space.

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