What a terribly broken hearted way to enter Shabbat. To awake this morning with the tragic news from Israel: dozens of Jewish worshippers killed in an avalanche of humanity at a spiritual celebration in Meron for the festival of Lag B’Omer. A nightmarish, ghoulish, suffocating event — a human disaster in the service of God — ought to humble us all. Living as we do in our age with the malignancy of death staring us in the face, whether it be gun violence, racist and anti-Semitic attacks against innocent victims, or the incomprehensible destruction of war; this tragedy in Israel was an example of what can happen when our fellow Jews, our fellow human beings, are cut down in joy, in celebration, in love for and in service to our God.
To die in service to God is a perversion of the natural order. Judaism teaches that above all else, we are to sanctify life. Further, the tradition also teaches that only in the most extreme circumstances should a Jew willingly give up his or her own life in devotion to God.
In Meron, at the grave of the early rabbinic sage Shimon bar Yochai, pilgrims gather each year to celebrate Lag B’Omer. “Lag” in Jewish numerology is the number 33. It has been 33 days since Passover began. Jewish tradition teaches that during the 49 days between Passover, our liberation from Egypt, and Shavuot, receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, we “count the omer,” or the spring grain that grows in the land of Israel during this time. Nature and ritual come together in a kind of spiritual-historical time to mark the wonder and bounty of the earth as well as the covenantal way in which we Jews mark our journey through life.
The Counting of the Omer is a time of introspection, serious reflection, preparation for the Gift of Torah. In ancient mytho-history, the 33rd day of the Omer was a two-fold date of importance. It marked the end of a period of plague and persecution of the ancient sages, in particular a rivalrous incident between Rabbi Akiva and his students; and it also marks the yahrzeit of Shimon bar Yohai, a monumental figure in early rabbinic history. Bar Yohai was a brilliant teacher, in possession of a rich and illustrious imagination, and he was also a fierce critic of the materialism and brute power of the Roman empire. He was once chased into exile by the Romans, forced to flee for his life and hide in a cave with his son for seven years. When he first emerged, he was so caught up in his righteousness, that anything or anyone he looked at was destroyed by fire. God told him to return to his cave. It seems that the Divine Voice demanded an obedience that was tempered, moderated, more embracing of life than the extreme expressions of devotion. He eventually emerged to understand that life could return to a kind of normalcy and the Talmud relates that when he came back to the world the second time, he was deeply moved by watching his fellow Jews prepare for Shabbat, sharing flowers and fresh myrtle to welcome the glory and splendor of the day of rest.
Bar Yohai is also, by legend, the author of Judaism’s most mystical tract, the Zohar, though scholars have long demonstrated that in fact the Zohar is of Medieval origin. But myth is a powerful tool and the passion with which believers flock to Bar Yohai’s grave is on full display each year in Meron.
That passion — so beautiful in its intent — has had an incomprehensibly tragic result in the senseless deaths we bear witness to today.
No one should die in service to God. With wrenched hearts we must face the fact that this was so; and also strengthen our efforts moving forward to ensure the safety of worshippers, lovers of the Divine Name, whenever and however they meet, with the intent of the loving expressions of peace and righteousness at the center of their beings.
When we experience death in Jewish life, we pray that the Divine brings comfort to the mourners; and we also pray that the memory of those we lost serve as a blessing. These words we use: “May God provide comfort to the mourners of Zion” and “May their memory be a blessing” are the animating life forces of how we transcend our grief in such moments.
The entire JCP community offers words of comfort, strength and love to the families of those lost in Meron on Lag B’Omer. May our people know only peace; and may our love for and worship of God be tempered by the humility of our service, rooted in the sanctification of life, always, now and forever.