The tragedy in Meron

Dear Rabbi Fried,

We have been decimated by the deaths of so many Jews in Meron and have been trying to make sense out of it, but it just seems so senseless. Can you help us make some sense out of this?

Joseph and Marna K.

Dear Joseph and Marna,

I wholeheartedly share your feelings of decimation. Every time I read the details of another one lost, I weep anew. Fathers of large families, young children, a young groom, a young husband with his wife expecting their first child, budding Torah scholars, the list goes on and on.… It’s almost too much to handle.… (It’s especially close to home with having one of our sons in attendance there — he got out just in time — and a second son who almost went and changed his mind.…)

Whenever we suffer a terrible calamity such as this, we grope for answers and come up empty. Especially when it occurs in such a holy place, at the grave of one of the holiest and greatest Jews of all time. And on such a holy day, the day of the yahrzeit of that sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, with the Jews present there to honor his memory and to bring honor to the Torah. It just boggles the mind and the heart!

On the other hand, moments before this tragedy the entire crowd of 100,000 had joined together in a heartrending rendition of “Ani Maamin,” a nearly thousand-year-old song proclaiming our complete and perfect belief in the eventual coming of the Messiah. They sang it, all swaying together, to an enchanting tune which was composed in one of the Nazi concentration camps and somehow spread throughout the camps like wildfire, those Jews surrounded by death continuing to proclaim their undying faith in the final redemption. That was the song sung by that holy convocation two minutes before the calamity. 

Although we are not prophets and don’t have the revelation to know why such things befall us, we still need to think about what happened and what to learn from it. Our sages have taught that every such occurrence is a wake-up call from Heaven and, although we don’t know the “why,” we need to think about what this is teaching us in order to strengthen ourselves in something which is lacking. 

Whenever I think about what has happened, two thoughts come to mind. 

One is, the holiness of many of those who died makes it clear that they were not being punished for anything they had ever done. Many Torah sources show that, at times, when there is a very powerful decree against the Jewish people, G-d, in His mercy, will take some of the righteous to atone for the entire generation. Again, we don’t know this to be the case; it’s just a feeling in my heart. 

The second thought, a more difficult and sorrowful one, is that the way these holy people died was by being crushed by fellow Jews. Although of course it wasn’t in their power to stop it, that’s still what happened, sad as this is to contemplate. 

One can’t help but think that this is supposed to be a lesson for us all, to look deeply within ourselves and consider whether we, with our speech or actions, perform acts which crush a fellow Jew. By speaking words which shame or embarrass another, whether in person or behind their backs, whether with actual words or online (which can be far worse, given the far reach of Facebook, Twitter, etc.), we can virtually kill another. The Talmud says that shaming another in public is tantamount to murder. 

This is a time to begin to study the works of the Chofetz Chaim, the laws of lashon hara or negative speech, and focus on our love for one-another and how we can use our speech and actions to build up others. 

To do so, I believe, will change the Jewish people and give some meaning to this terrible loss.

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