By Rabbi Simcha Scholar
In my life’s work, I have witnessed much trauma and pain, and I have learned that though similar, in truth, they are distinguishably different.
Pain is an instantaneous reaction, a sensation of discomfort or distress, the direct result of impact or injury. Trauma, however, comes in the aftermath, the lingering effects on the body and mind. Even when pain subsides, trauma remains.
Seeing children lying in hospital beds is painful. Watching a mother valiantly trying to hold herself and her family together suddenly burst into uncontrollable sobbing as she faces yet another setback is painful. Facing a room of frightened children, teens, and adults, hoping beyond hope that your words can somehow calm their fears and reignite the light in their darkened, hollowed eyes, is painful. When those haunting images linger in your conscience, pound your racing heart, and cast a black cloud over everything you see and everything you do, that is trauma. The pain of an encounter might be gone, but often, it won’t let go.
Last Lag Ba’omer, Klal Yisroel suffered an excruciating calamity that was, and is, both painful and traumatic. Many of us have not come to terms with what transpired, and the fear and horror are still vivid and real.
It had been a tough year. Covid had shaken us to the core and only with great rachmei Shomayim did we prevail. Lockdowns had ended and people were finally ready to gather en masse. For Yidden in Eretz Yisroel, Lag Ba’omer was their first foray back into the public sphere. And then, at the height of a long-awaited euphoria, catastrophe struck and dozens of precious Yidden, brothers, fathers, and sons, lost their lives.
Time has not healed us. We remain scarred and scared. In Eretz Yisroel, many people still fear crowds and are hesitant to return to the hallowed, holy sight of the tragedy. Their pain may have passed, but the trauma endures.
Many are bothered not only by what happened, but by where and when it happened. In Meron, one of the most exalted places in the world, during the most exalted moments of the year, 45 precious neshamos were snuffed out.
The prospects of celebrating this year are just as troubling. The tragedy hovers over us. An ominous gloom permeates this sacred day, marring our simcha. How can we rejoice in the face of such pain? How can we dance with bleeding hearts?
My line of work, my avodas hakodesh, and that of my phenomenal coworkers at Chai Lifeline, has always been to boldly face pain and do our best to soothe it. To offer a shoulder to cry on, a voice of encouragement, and whatever a child or family might need to alleviate their suffering. Over the past few years, we have taken a leading role in educating individuals and communities reeling in the throes of trauma. Our crisis intervention teams are constantly at the forefront, dealing with past ordeals and training leaders to face the future. It is our sacred duty to find, provide and serve as a beacon of light in the darkness and kindle a flame of hope in a bleak, black world.
Immediately after the Meron tragedy, we were already on the ground. It was difficult to offer comfort or console then, and it still is now.
But I have learned that even amidst the darkness, there is always a glimmer of light.
The poignant words of the Pri Chodosh, echoed by the Chida, are chillingly apropos.
“The tradition of joyous celebration on Lag Ba’omer is perplexing. Though historically on this day the 24,000 students of Rabi Akiva ceased dying, what room is there for rejoicing when so many were lost? Of the 24,000, not even one remained!”
To paraphrase: How can we rejoice when we have lost so many and the pain is so raw?
Their answer is a balm for the soul: “Perhaps, the jubilant simcha commemorates the [five] new students who Rabi Akiva began teaching.” The past was grievous, the losses were inestimable, but the future held light and that was sufficient reason to rejoice. Sometimes, though excruciatingly difficult, we need to tear ourselves away from the pain and trauma of what transpired, and courageously face the future with sanguinity. Even hearts frozen in fear, emotions bound by suffering, can and must gather the strength, the courage, to forge on, radiating hope and joy for the light of the future.
We cannot and dare not forget the kedoshim. Their memory must live on. They came to bask in the jubilant aura of Rabi Shimon, and it behooves us to preserve that simcha, their simcha, and carry it further. Let us clasp hands together and rejoice so we can perpetuate the rekidah that they had come to partake in. May the medurah that they ignited shine in us and through us to illuminate the world.
Rabbi Simcha Scholar is the chief executive officer of Chai Lifeline.