When Tragedy Strikes            

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This past week on Lag B’Omer a terrible tragedy struck in  Meron  in the midst of what ought to have been joyous celebrations. The phenomenon of simcha turning into sorrow is, unfortunately, not so rare  as it should be in Israel.

That is because for all of Israel’s advances in science, especially in the area  of medical innovations that save lives, the goal of peace with the Arabs who surround her remains elusive. All of the various strategies that have been employed have not succeeded in removing hatred and enmity and the specter of terrorism striking in the most unlikely places still remains.

But none of this prepared us for the tragedy at Meron. The deaths there  were not the result of terrorism. No one placed  a bomb or opened fire on defenseless civilians. Rather a stampede broke out as massive amounts of people sought to enter an area not spacious enough to contain them. Many of the deceased were young men in the prime of life and many left widows and orphaned children.

The entire nation of Israel and the Jewish People around the world were shocked by this unanticipated event which darkened the Chag of Lag B’Omer. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared a National Day of Mourning and as I walked by President Reuven Rivlin’s residence on Shabbat morning I noticed a set table with a black tablecloth and counted 45 yahrzeit candles upon it. We must mourn but also strive to derive some meaning from this tragedy.

One of this week’s Parshas, Bechukotai, describes the various punishments that will come upon us for violation of the Mitzvot. The question arises, should this be regarded as divine punishment  for religious shortcomings? I wholeheartedly agree with the principle that when calamities, especially national ones, occur we are obligated to look within and search out our sins.

But I don’t think we are obligated to believe that the terrible event was a supernatural happening designed specifically to dispense punishment for various transgressions. That is because according to numerous officials this calamity was eminently avoidable. In fact many who were familiar with the physical characteristics of the facility in which the gathering was held had expressed the fear that a  calamity such  as the one that occurred was in the offing. When the causes of a mishap are easily explainable in terms of the natural order one need not resort to metaphysical explanations  in order to understand them.

It seems to me that the fact that we have an obligation to introspect does not necessarily imply that what transpired was a miracle. This was not a case where the earth opened up and swallowed Korach and all his congregation. Rather everything that happened took place within the framework of the natural order and, with the proper precautions, might have been avoided.

This, of course, does not  exonerate us from the obligation to repent. For when a tragedy occurs whether of a miraculous or natural character it obligates us to look within and expose flaws. In the course of our soul searching we may have to confront the fact that we did not act to remove the  hazards  that  were responsible for the disaster that  ensued. 

This laziness and lackadaisical attitude itself constitutes a very serious religious violation. The Torah commands that when we build a new house we must “erect a barrier for our roofs” so that “the one who falls should not fall from it.” Not only that but we must remove all sources of danger from our dwellings so that we do not “place blood” in our homes.

When a terrible catastrophe happens we need to look within and search for sin. This should not be limited only to ritual shortcomings like not praying properly. If the happening was a natural and avoidable one which came about  because of laziness and stubbornness then those very attitudes constitute a serious sin which requires Teshuva.

Lag B’Omer takes place during the mourning period known as “Sefira”. During this time 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a mysterious plague. This clearly was not a “natural” event and the Sages sought out the reason for this divine punishment. They asserted that these great Talmudic scholars were punished because “they did  not act respectfully one to another.” 

When we observe the mourning period of  Sefira we must concentrate on the need to be respectful of all people and seek to honestly confront any tendencies we may have to be rude and dismissive of others. As we observe the aveilut for the victims of Meron all of us should engage in honest introspection. There may be many areas in our own lives where we fail to take necessary precautions and expose ourselves and others to serious danger. 

Are there potential sources of calamity  in our homes, do we keep stairwells well-lighted and are we safe or reckless drivers? If we emerge from this tragedy with a heightened sense of safety and concern for own lives and that of others that will impart some meaning to a tragic happening. May we merit to avoid such things in the future.

Shabbat Shalom 

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