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Tragedy in Meron (Emor – 05/01/21)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Tragedy in Meron
A tragedy occurred this past Friday in Meron, Israel. As a hundred thousand spiritual seekers gathered on Lag B’Omer near the tomb of the father of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, 45 people were trampled to death and hundreds injured.
While you and I might have stayed away from a crowded gathering of thousands, I can understand its appeal.
As a University of Michigan student, attending a football game at “The Big House” was something bigger than life. One was swept away in the “wave” and our singing of “Hail To The Victors.”
If you’ve ever been to a Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones, or Lady Gaga concert, you might also appreciate the joy and elevation of singing and dancing in unison with tens of thousands.
When I became religious, I searched for similar forms of ecstasy in religious venues. In the small town of Monsey in Rockland County reside the Viznitzer Chasidim. Every Shabbat night they gather in the thousands sitting in stands and bleachers around their Rebbe. Between the multiple courses of the Rebbe’s dinner, songs would resound, piercing the Heavens. I’d sneak into those hallowed halls in the wee hours of Shabbat night. Those stirring, soulful melodies still resonate in my heart.
One year in the ’90s, I joined a bunch of Chasidim who travel to Breslov in the Ukraine to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the tomb of the great spiritual leader, Rabbi Nachman. In our makeshift synagogue 3000 seekers poured their hearts out in prayer. When we reached the part where the cantor chants, “HaMelech-The King”, I was thunderstruck as everyone got up on their feet, applauding and cheering on the King of Kings, The Holy One, Baruch Hu. I’m still moved by that small moment in time today.
So, after a year of social distancing, now that Israelis are allowed to gather once more, I can see the allure of Meron. Rabbi Shimon paved the path for the Jewish soul seeker. In the Zohar, the book of his teachings, it is recorded how all of us are an aspect of God. When we do a mitzvah, we unite the Godliness inside us with the God outside of us, becoming truly one with God and the universe. Rabbi Shimon taught us about elevating our soul and fixing the world through our thoughts, actions, and words. Whereas the Torah asks us to love God, the Zohar is replete with how God loves and treasures us.
After a year of hardship and separation, souls are pining for healing, elevation, and oneness. Singing, praying, chanting together with a hundred thousand soul seekers at the place where these ideas originated is just the cure. It is tragic that such healing was not to happen. Perhaps it was still too soon. But I empathize with those aspirants. Just like we need the joy of hugging our children and grandchildren and seeing our good friends in person, we also need to satisfy our soul.
The way these people died is tragic. Nonetheless, they recognized that sublime aspect of the human that so often gets ignored in modern society and attempted to address its needs. Their deaths should remind us that even soulful ventures need caution. But even more so, it should remind us we all need soulful ventures.

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