In the shadow of Meron 2021
The traditions are both ancient and beautiful, with an inner meaning and depth that transcends the boundaries of time and place. Over twenty years ago I merited to walk up Mount Meron on Lag B’Omer night, the melody of accents from around the world swirled through our ears and gave flight to our feet. We were transported up that mountain with the joy of unity, our only impediment the constant invitations to join families and groups at their meals and celebrations. Sometime after midnight we finally arrived at the top and patiently waited our turn to enter into the burial hall of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose Yartzheit was being commemorated that night, but whose teachings continue to illuminate the world millennia later.
It is that light of his teachings that gave rise to the custom of the Madurah – the bonfires lit across the Jewish world on Lag B’Omer.
In Meron, the main bonfires are scheduled to allow each group their personal space, but the flames, the light and the joy all mingle together as the spiritual ecstasy rises heavenwards. For a Yeshiva student, my memories of that night were ones of pure joy and delight, a feeling of being transported to a world beyond my own; the difficulty was trying to recreate it 15 years later, whilst walking up that short stretch of road with Nachi and our two daughters on a regular summer’s day. Gone were the crowds and the music, the smell of roasting meat and the sheer rhapsody of a community celebrating an ancient but still fresh Simcha. But the imprint of those feet dancing the streets were still visible, and the heat of the bonfires continued to warm our hearts. And as a family we stood and absorbed the holiness and tranquillity of the sacred mountain.
Last night we logged on to the live stream from Meron, with a sense of pride that Israel had manged to vaccinate so many of its citizens, allowing this monumental celebration to take place. We watched as the first Madurah was lit by the Boyaner Rebbe of Jerusalem in a tradition dating back to his great-great-grandfather Rabbi Avraham Friedman of Sadigura over 150 years ago. As the familiar tune praising Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai began the assembled crowd started bouncing on their feet creating a wave effect reminiscent of an ocean pulsating with life and energy. An hour later we watched and smiled as dozens of 3 year old boys came to get their Opsherin – the first haircut, on this auspicious day. They filed past their Rebbe, The Toldos Aharon, who lovingly cut a small lock from the front of their head where in 10 years time they would place their Tefillin. The sight of these young pure souls sitting proudly on their father’s shoulders as they took their place of honour near the next Madurah was quickly screenshot.
We continued to watch the singing and dancing, the joy radiating through the ether from Israel to our screen in Bowdon. The song at that point emanating in harmony from thousands of voices was a famous rendition of ‘Ani Maamin – I Believe’ composed by R’ Azriel Dovid Fastag, a Modzhitzer Chossid whilst he was on the train to Treblinka. It’s a song of hope born out of tragedy, a melody that somehow transports those who hear it to a place beyond pain and suffering.
Then the announcements began, asking for people to make way for the emergency services. As the scene unfolded in front of us, we watched in agony praying that it was not the tragedy that it ended up to be. The events of the next few hours do not require any repetition here. Neither is it my place to offer any thoughts of condolences or answers: for at the moment there are none. But the reports coming in included ones from the nearby Arab villages in the Galilee opening their doors after a full day of Fasting for Ramadan and offering support, as well as reports of lines in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv with hundreds queuing to donate blood.
As I posted in the immediate aftermath: “There is no obligation to find meaning in tragedy, It’s okay to just feel sad”. But at the same time, I can’t help but find comfort in the humanity of those from across the country, including from groups who would never dream of going to Meron on Lag B’Omer, to literally open their homes and hearts to provide comfort and support to our National Family.
May those who are injured be healed, those lost be reunited with their loved ones and those who will never go home be bound in the eternal flame of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the Jewish People.