We are all deeply shocked by the news from Israel this morning. Over forty people have been crushed to death through crowd pressure during Lag Be’Omer celebrations in Miron in the Galilee. We do not yet know either the full extent or the causes of this appalling and heart-rending disaster. But a day which should mark healing and joy has become a tragedy.
Our hearts go out to the families of the bereaved and injured, to everyone traumatised, to all the responders and medics who did and are doing their utmost to help.
The Jewish response, the human response, and probably the only thing we can do from afar, is to give tzedakah. This is probably the only channel we currently have to express our sorrow and solidarity. It is not yet clear if there is a specific appeal for the victims. So please consider supporting any medical charity in Israel and / or contributing to any cause of healing.
We have also been asked by members of our community currently living in India to contribute to the British Asian Trust Emergency Appeal. It is providing desperately needed oxygen and life-saving equipment. You can donate here.
All we can do is be on the side of chaim vechesed, life and compassion.
Today is the morning of Lag Be’Omer, the day of healing which comes two thirds of the way between Pesach and Shavuot, Passover and Pentecost. It’s beautiful in the gardens today; the pear trees and apple trees are in blossom and the scented lilac, held back by April frosts, will soon be open.
The date has a particular resonance this year. According to tradition, it marked the end of a plague which killed thousands of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. Though the pandemic afflicting us is not over, we hope this day may come to mark an irrevocable turning point back to life, community and hope. Wherever in the world Covid continues to spread, bringing sickness and grief, we must all do our utmost to help.
Strangely, the date has its own ancient lockdown story too. Its hero is Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, who died on Lag Be’Omer and who whose life is celebrated annually with bonfires and songs. He was forced to hide in a cave for twelve years together with his son Elazar, to escape the Roman authorities who had condemned him to death for criticising their works. It’s a long time to be shielding, in secret, from the entire world.
But it’s what transpires when he emerges from lockdown which is so strangely moving. He and his son are unable to come to terms with the ordinariness of the world. They see people ploughing and sowing. Little could be more innocent or necessary and yet the sight angers them:
‘They forsake the life of the world to come (the study of Torah), and busy themselves with the things of this world!’ (they exclaimed.) Wherever they looked, they destroyed. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)
A voice comes down from heaven, or perhaps it expresses the misgivings in their own conscience, and says: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!’
The world is beautiful. It is God’s world, sacred and wonderful. Nothing in nature is too simple to be cherished. Life, ordinary, everyday life, is a privilege. Nothing should be taken for granted.
Perhaps it’s the shock of the transition which was too much for Rabbi Shimeon and his son. They return to their cave to absorb these lockdown lessons, which we too have been taking to heart for these last fifteen months. After a year, the same voice which ordered them to go back calls them to come out of their cave. They see an old man running to honour the Sabbath with bunches of myrtle; the sight restores their spirits. His son remains troubled, but wherever Rabbi Shimeon now looks, he heals.
I am moved by what might today be termed this post traumatic stress growth. Lockdown leaves many wounds. In the legend Rabbi Shimeon is met by his father-in-law Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who takes him to the bathhouse to treat his emaciated body. When he sees the cracks and chaps in his son-in-law’s skin from hiding for so long in a dry cave, he weeps and his falling tears sting the very sores he is trying to heal. It’s a tender scene of sorrow, hope and learning shared.
But what is decisive is that voice which Rabbi Shimeon hears when he first emerges back into life. It’s ‘my world,’ God’s world: life is to be loved and honoured; the ordinary is wondrous too; people’s foibles are to be tolerated and their devotion respected and admired….