(Mt. Meron by Lior Golgher • ליאור גולגר – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2277766)
Last night there was a tragedy in Israel, people were killed in a terrible accident in the midst of their celebration of Lag B’omer. Rabbi Larry Milder sent this message to his congregation. I want to point out to you that Rabbi Milder is a Reform rabbi and I love his third paragraph. I’ve put it in bold. Just three days ago a Jewish man took me to task for supporting an Orthodox young man in a recent column. I hope the gentleman reads this and chooses to agree with Rabbi Milder that all Jews are one.
I want to add, all humans are one family. Let’s take care of each other even when we disagree.
We grieve with all of Israel, and Jews everywhere, over the tragic loss of life last night during a celebration of Lag Ba’Omer. Forty-five people died and over 150 were injured in a stampede that occurred on Mt. Meron in northern Israel.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gather annually at the site that they believe is the grave of the 2nd century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. A gathering meant to be celebratory and inspiring has now become one of the greatest civil disasters in Israel’s history. Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared this Sunday a national day of mourning.
Our tradition teaches that kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, all Israel is responsible for one another. When disaster strikes, there are no religious and secular, Orthodox and Reform Jews. There are only Jews, and we mourn with them.
Today is La”G, meaning the 33rd, day of the Omer, the 50 day period between Pesach and Shavuot. Among Orthodox Jews, the Omer is a period of semi-mourning, during which weddings and other celebrations are not held. The exception is La”G, the 33rd day, but the reasons for that exception are not entirely clear.
Some believe that a plague which affected the students of Akiva ended on Lag Ba’Omer. Some historians, however, point to parallels between Lag Ba’Omer and spring festivities shared across cultures, like May Day.
The gathering at the presumed grave of Shimon bar Yochai is based on a belief that this sage died on Lag Ba’Omer. He is especially significant to Chasidic Jews, because the medieval mystical text, the Zohar, was attributed to Shimon bar Yochai as its author. While historically inaccurate, his grave is revered by the ultra-Orthodox as a site of blessing.
There is much to be reclaimed in our understanding of Lag Ba’Omer, especially the significance of the journey from Egypt to Sinai, from redemption to revelation, which the Omer represents. For now, however, a day that should be holy and celebratory will be covered with tears.
Hamakom yinachem, may God comfort the mourners in Zion.
Rabbi Larry Milder