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In the Shadow of the Meron Tragedy

The tragedy in Meron will remain with us for years to come. It will be one of the calamities remembered as an integral part of Jewish history and of the history of Israel. As I mentioned last week, it was the deadliest civilian tragedy in the history of this state.

Over the past week, I have read many stories and details of the disaster. When the shock fades away, there will probably be plenty of stories and books written about the tragedy. Wondrous miracles will be discovered, darshonim will describe details that led people to be spared from death, and stories of hashgocha protis will be told with great enthusiasm. Certainly, Hashem’s hashgocha works both ways. The 45 victims who met their deaths were guided by Hashem to the slippery path and the suffocating crowd, and that same hashgocha guided numerous others away from danger. Those who survived a narrow brush with death are no different from those whose lives were snatched away from them; all our steps are guided from Above. Every death was the product of a Divine decree.

There will also be stories of heroism, such as the case of Rabbi Shimon Matalon, who called out to his would-be rescuers to save a child before they tried to extricate him. That is a story that sounds as if it could have come from earlier generations. And if it is true that one of the niftorim declared aloud before his death, “I forgive the people who are trampling on me, even if they cause me to die,” then that is simply beyond human comprehension. He must have been a phenomenal tzaddik. We will yet learn about people who endangered their lives to save others, or even gave up their own lives and thereby spared others from death. Sure enough, the stories are already beginning to flow.

Take the following, for instance. This is not a story of heroism as much as it sheds light on the human aspect of this disaster. Two friends from Yeshivas Heichal Yitzchok traveled to Meron together on the night of Lag Ba’Omer: Avrohom Doniel Ambon and Yeshayohu Toledano. Ambon remarked, “Even though I don’t really enjoy noise and commotion, I should experience Lag Ba’Omer with Rabi Shimon at least once in my life.” As it turned out, his first visit to Meron on Lag Ba’Omer would also be his last.

The two bochurim parted ways in Meron; Toledano remained behind to enjoy the festivities, while Ambon decided to head back to the yeshiva. The next morning, his friends grew concerned when they realized he hadn’t returned. They dialed his phone number, but the call was answered only once, and they heard the voices of rescue personnel instead of the missing bochur. Avrohom Doniel’s brother and Yeshayohu Toledano hurried to the Abu Kabir forensic institute, where they encountered a horrific scene. The bodies of the niftorim had been brought there in two groups; nineteen bodies arrived at 12:30 p.m., while the rest were brought an hour later. The families gathered outside asked the staff to expedite their procedures so that the niftorim could be buried, but the staff replied that they would not be able to identify more than 15 bodies before Shabbos.

Yeshayohu Toledano fainted. Rav Dovid Lau and MK Yinon Azulai, who were present at the gates of the institute, helped revive him. At the last possible minute, under pressure from Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, the staff allowed them to enter the institute and identify the deceased. In a stroke of hashgocha, Dr. Nachman of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, a Spanish-speaking Argentinean, was there to assist them. He was able to communicate with Avrohom Doniel’s brother and to calm him, and he also helped the family interface with the Argentinean embassy.

On Motzoei Shabbos, Avrohom Doniel’s body was transferred to Maayanei HaYeshuah Hospital. I attended the levayah on Monday; Avrohom Doniel Ambon was the last victim of the tragedy to be buried, in a funeral attended by thousands of people.

Dovi Steinmetz’s Last Minutes

There is another story that demonstrates how Hashem pinpointed the most righteous souls to remove from this world in this terrible disaster. On Rechov Chaim Ben-Atar in the city of Ramle, the Mastorov family sat shivah for their son Yosef, a talmid of Yeshivas Rinah Shel Torah in Carmiel, who was hailed by his peers as a future gadol. His father, Reb Boruch, is a prominent member of the kollel in Ramle headed by Rav Yaakov Abuchatzeirah.

Yosef Masto-rov, the deceased bochur, was a young man with a pure heart, who was a regular visitor to the kollel. Whenever he was home for Shabbos, he used to walk for an hour to the kollel on Rechov Eshel Avrohom, where he would daven at the vosikin minyan and remain in the bais medrash to learn until 10:00.

The family was visited during the shivah by a chareidi bus driver from Bnei Brak. The visitor quoted the Midrash Rabbah, which states that when Bnei Yisroel stood at Har Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem said to them, “I am giving you the Torah; bring Me proper guarantors that you will observe it.” The Jewish people replied, “Our forefathers are our guarantors,” but Hashem did not accept this. Finally, the people announced that their children would guarantee their observance, and this was indeed accepted by Hashem.

“I have come to ask for Yosef’s forgiveness,” the visitor said. “You see, a creditor seeks payment from a guarantor only when the borrower himself doesn’t pay his debt. Apparently, we did not live up to our obligations, and that is why Hashem sought ‘payment’ from the guarantors, from the children who never sinned.” This man visited all the houses of mourning to ask for “forgiveness” from each of them. At the Mastorov house in Ramle, he sat and sobbed bitterly.

As I mentioned in a different article, MK Moshe Arbel spoke in the Knesset about his meeting with Dovi Steinmetz, the bochur from Montreal who perished in Meron, shortly before the latter’s death. I asked Arbel to tell me more about his experience, and he said, “I went to Meron with a friend from Toronto who had recovered from cancer and made a special trip to Israel for this purpose. After we attended the hadlokah of Boyan, we went to Moshav Meron for a seudas hodaah at the home of a mutual friend. Dovi was there with us. After the seudah, we went to daven and then planned to return to Bnei Brak. Dovi accompanied us. We left Meron, but he decided to stay for the Toldos Aharon bonfire.” The bochur had made a powerful impression on Arbel.

Shimon Matalon’s Viduy

Last week, I mentioned that the levayah of Shimon Matalon, who lived in Beitar Illit, set out from his parents’ home in Givat Shaul, in the building next to mine. On Thursday, when the family got up from shivah, I davened Maariv in the Zupnik shul in my neighborhood. The davening was led by Reb Yosef Matalon, the father of the niftar. At every Kaddish, we could hear him crying out the words “Yisgadal v’yiskadash shemei rabbah” from the depths of his soul.

After davening, Reb Yosef was surrounded by a small group eager to provide a listening ear. He told them that on the Shabbos before his death, Reb Shimon had delivered a shmuess of sorts to his children, exhorting them to build homes founded on the Torah. Reb Shimon had also cited the famous observation that the difference between a live fish and a dead one is that the live fish swims against the current. “Our obligation is to go against the flow,” Reb Shimon told his family.

On Thursday, hours before he was killed, Reb Shimon Matalon gave a closed envelope to one of his fellow melamdim and instructed him to wait until Sunday to open it. The envelope contained the poem that has already made waves throughout the world.

Reb Yosef added that on Erev Lag Ba’Omer, his son had immersed in a mikveh and recited viduy in his home before traveling to Meron. When he arrived in Meron, he repeated the viduy. When someone questioned him about his behavior, he said simply, “We must purify ourselves when we come to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.”

The men commented that thousands of people had derived chizuk from Shimon and had undertaken various kabbalos after his death. Reb Yosef was pleased. “That is our real source of comfort,” he said. “That is what will truly remain.”

A Failure of the Government

Everyone is talking about an investigation of the tragedy in Meron, but I don’t know what benefit will come from pinning the blame on a particular police officer. Of course, the police force is already preparing to demonstrate that all the officers acted appropriately, which may or may not be true. As of now, based on all the eyewitness accounts of the disaster, I have concluded that there is no definitive evidence that there was actually a police barrier at the bottom of the steps; however, it is clear that if the police at the entrance to the passageway had been alert and perceptive enough, they would have prevented many people from entering the area that became a death trap. But I will leave those considerations to the investigators.

Regardless of whether the police are to blame, though, one thing is clear: The state itself is certainly at fault for not preparing the site sufficiently to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people. Every year, the government has allocated millions of shekels for all sorts of purposes, but the chareidi community has always been forced to threaten and complain until it received its due—and even then, the chareidim were always depicted as extortionists, accused of using undue pressure to solicit funds from the government.

Nevertheless, everyone now agrees that an area meant to be occupied by hundreds of thousands of people should not look anything like Meron of today. The paths and passageways are too narrow to allow visitors to pass through safely and reasonably. The government has been warned every year about the dangers, and even about the steps where the tragedy took place. The size of the area was doubled in response to those warnings, but that was clearly not enough.

Echoes from the Past

If an inquiry is launched, I am wondering if I should have the commission review articles that I wrote for this newspaper. The first, written five years ago, was an interview with Rabbi Dovid Azulai; the second was a joint interview with Reb Dovid and, ybl”ch, Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, the director of the Center for the Development of Holy Sites. In both interviews, which took place in advance of Lag Ba’Omer, the men warned about the dangers facing visitors to Meron. They lamented the fact that the hillula of Rabi Shimon has never been under the aegis of one specific figure, and they revealed that they had warned the police that the area was hazardous.

Six years ago, I wrote: “Some claim there is no solution to the problem of overcrowding in Meron. That is the way it always was and always will be; it is simply the nature of the place. This approach might have been acceptable, if not for the events of two years ago, which were decried by the members of the Knesset … when people were on the verge of pikuach nefesh. This year, due to the tragedy at the levayah of Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, no one will dare dismiss the crowding as simply part of the experience of visiting Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s burial place.”

Dovid Azulai added at the time, “The real problem is the presence of such a large mass of people in such a short span of time. There are over half a million people visiting Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the State of Israel.” Regarding the two decisions made by the police at the time—to eliminate the mehadrin path and to permit people to enter the tziyun in groups—Azulai said, “Their plan isn’t realistic, and there is no need for it. We have been through Lag Ba’Omer dozens of times already. That isn’t the problem; the real issue is with the transportation and the area below. If they do this, they will simply cause tremendous crowding at the entrance to the tziyun, and then what will they have accomplished?”

Terror Rears Its Head

Several recent terror attacks against Jews, both soldiers and civilians, have been miraculously thwarted with the terrorists being “neutralized”—meaning that the terrorists were killed to prevent them from carrying out their intentions. In one incident, the terrorists made a daring attempt to infiltrate an army base.

Unfortunately, there was one terror attack that did take a life: Nineteen-year-old Yehuda Guetta of Yerushalayim, a talmid in a yeshiva in Itamar, was mortally wounded in an attack at the Tapuach junction and passed away last Wednesday. The levayah set out from the Heichal Yaakov shul in Kiryat Moshe, where the Guetta family lives; it is a mere four-minute walk from my home.

The attack also left Guetta’s friend, Benaya Peretz of Beit Shean, in serious condition. Amichai Chala, another classmate, was lightly wounded and has already been released from the hospital. Shortly after Guetta’s death, the security forces located the terrorist, thanks to “intelligence gathered by the Shabak” (in other words, with the help of Arab informants).

The murderer was arrested in the Arab village of Silwad and was taken for questioning by the Shabak. Prime Minister Netanyahu praised the intelligence agency for capturing the murderer. “I congratulate the Shabak, the IDF, and the police for their quick, determined work, which brought about the capture of the terrorist who murdered Yehuda Guetta and wounded Benaya Peretz,” he announced. “Israel’s long arm will reach anyone who harms our citizens.” This type of boastful rhetoric always makes me uncomfortable….

It is worth mentioning that the phenomenon of balloon terror has, unfortunately, returned to us as well. And the wave of assaults on chareidi Jews by Arab youths hasn’t yet ended. The trend has subsided somewhat, but there have still been instances in which religious Jews were harassed, their yarmulkes or hats were knocked off, and even, in some cases, they were beaten. May Hashem have mercy.

Arabs Riot in the Streets of Yerushalayim

Last week I wrote about fears of an escalation of violence in Yerushalayim. Well, we are now beyond the point of escalation; it has spiraled into full-fledged rioting. And the concern today is that this may be only the beginning of a wave of violence; may Hashem protect us!

On Motzoei Shabbos, the police had their hands full with another night of violent clashes. Police and Border Guard forces were called to disperse dozens of rioters near Tzidkiyohu’s Cave, to the east of Shaar Shechem, after they threw rocks and other objects at the security forces. The police used riot control measures to restore order and disperse the rioters.

At the same time, Border Guard officers at the Qalandia crossing confronted about a hundred rioters throwing stones, Molotov cocktails, and firecrackers. The officers dispersed the rioters, and Palestinian sources reported that eight people were injured during the clashes. On Rechov Dovid in Yerushalayim, a 25-year-old Arab was arrested and questioned by the police after he allegedly assaulted a Jew and knocked his hat off. Four other men were also arrested at Kever Rochel for throwing rocks at officers working to restore calm in the area. In yet another incident, a policeman was injured on his face in an assault at the Shaar HaPerachim, and an Arab suspect was taken into custody. Finally, at the Rockefeller junction, a firecracker and a rock were thrown at a police car, lightly injuring two police officers, who were treated by a medical team at the scene.

And even that is not all. Dozens of masked Arabs marched in the Issawiya neighborhood of Yerushalayim and began throwing firecrackers, and the police were called in to disperse the riot. A man was attacked by two suspects in the Mesilla park in Yerushalayim, but did not require medical attention; the suspects were arrested and taken for questioning. A bus driver was also injured by stones thrown at his vehicle near the Atarot junction. The driver was taken to the hospital for medical treatment, and the police launched a manhunt to locate his assailants.

Fears of Muslims Uniting in Hate

This was a new level of violence. It began with riots on Har Habayis, where tens of thousands of Muslims were congregating and some began to go wild. Their anger was triggered by a police decision to close the Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv Highway to some of the worshipers attempting to make their way to the site. But even before that, there were riots in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, near the kever of Shmuel Hanovi. The violence is becoming frightening, especially considering that the Arabs in Yerushalayim are backed by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza. Our real fear is that this will develop into a religious war fought by all the Muslims in the world to prevent an alleged Jewish takeover of the Al Aqsa mosque on Har Habayis. If they are motivated by religious zeal, the Arabs can be far more dangerous than ever.

Meanwhile, the Americans hastened to announce that they are “concerned.” Yes, the White House is worried about the fact that Israeli policemen are chasing Arab rioters in Yerushalayim; they are less concerned about what the Arabs are doing to the Jews. Meanwhile, the number of visitors to the Kosel has dropped dramatically; people are fearful of the violence perpetrated by Arab youths.

The riots in Yerushalayim in recent days have led to the arrests of 200 Arabs, mostly youths, who are suspected of “disturbing the public order.” That is a vague legal term that includes actions such as assaulting police officers and throwing stones, firecrackers, and Molotov cocktails. All those things, of course, can be deadly weapons. A car was recently stoned, and the driver barely managed to escape with his life.

The disturbances have continued in the area of Shaar Shechem and the nearby streets, as well as in the neighborhoods of East Yerushalayim. The police have been deployed in an effort to restore order and prevent innocent people from being harmed. In many cases, they have had no choice but to use various means at their disposal to disperse the rioters. And the chilling reality is that Shaar Shechem is not very far from Meah Shearim, Musrara, and many other Jewish neighborhoods.

Netanyahu and Gantz Speak Out

All this has been taking place against the backdrop of Yom Yerushalayim, which fell on Monday this week (the 28th of Iyar). On Sunday, Tachanun was not recited in the Knesset shul at Mincha, since some of the mispallelim considered the day akin to Erev Yom Tov. I didn’t feel I would accomplish anything by debating the point.

At the festive cabinet session held on Sunday in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke about the events in the city. “Over the past few days, we have witnessed riots taking place in Yerushalayim due to the influence of certain incendiary forces,” he announced. “We will continue to make sure that every faith retains its freedom of worship, but we will not allow violent disturbances of the public order. I am hereby warning the terror organizations that we will respond with force to every act of violence. Israel rejects the pressure being placed on it to refrain from building in Yerushalayim.”

Benny Gantz spoke in a similar vein earlier in the day, at a ceremony commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany. “We are obligated to guarantee the rights and security of all citizens of Israel, and the freedom of religion of all peoples,” he intoned. “At the same time, Israel will act against any extremist forces and anyone who tries to harm us for political reasons…. To the same degree that we bear responsibility for the Jewish people and for Jews in Israel and throughout the world, we are obligated to safeguard the rights and security of all the citizens of Israel.”

Based on the tone of their comments, one would think they believe that they can save the world.

Bennett Backtracks

We cannot let a week go by without some political news, and I must say that the current situation is far from enjoyable. As of now, the mandate to form the government has been transferred to the left, and the chareidi parties are watching to see if Bennett and Lapid manage to put together a coalition. Both men claim they are on the verge of sealing a deal that will include all the other parties on the left and center. Personally, I find it hard to believe that they will find any common ground among so many parties that are so different from each other. Their coalition would have to include Meretz and Labor, which are on the far left, as well as Bennett and Saar (and even Lieberman), who are on the other end of the spectrum. How could these disparate parties possibly unite under any shared principles?

At this time, actually, the political squabbling involves portfolios rather than principles. The parties are bickering about how to divide up the government ministries, and there seems to be a world war raging over every ministry. Every party wants both the education ministry and the justice ministry, and all the contenders have their own swollen egos to deal with.

The parties have already agreed that Bennett will receive the first rotation as prime minister, but I feel that this will also be a sticking point. I am skeptical about the notion that the left will allow Bennett to take office when the moment of truth arrives. I also find it hard to believe that the Arabs, who are supposed to support the government “from the outside,” will allow a right-wing figure such as Naftoli Bennett to become prime minister.

On the surface, Bennett’s behavior is utterly bewildering. The same man who announced, “I give you my word: I will not support a left-wing government,” and who declared, “I am signing a pledge; I will not allow Lapid to become prime minister,” has now effectively broken all his promises. One of the Knesset members in Bennett’s party has actually bucked the party line and announced he will not support a left-wing government; in response, Bennett ordered him to resign from the Knesset, but he refused. He understands just how egregiously Bennett plans to betray his own voters.

But what is the reason for Bennett’s behavior? How can he justify reneging on all his promises? Bennett believes that if he becomes the first person in history to break the glass ceiling and become the prime minister of Israel while wearing a kippah serugah, everyone will forgive him for violating his word. But I’m not sure they will. Yesterday, a longtime Knesset employee who wears a knit yarmulke came to my office and remarked, “Bennett has always portrayed himself as dati leumi [national religious]. We discovered a long time ago that he wasn’t dati. Now we are learning that he is also not leumi.”

The escalation of violence in Yerushalayim is also harmful to their efforts to form a government; the Arab parties will not be able to support a “Jewish” government when the atmosphere in the streets is so volatile. But for the religious parties, this is still a time for trepidation. The last thing they would want is for Lieberman to become the finance minister, for a member of the Meretz Party to take over the Ministry of the Interior, and, quite possibly, for the Reform clergyman in the Knesset to be appointed Minister of Religious Affairs. Yet that is precisely what might happen if Lapid and Bennett have their way.

A Last-Ditch Appeal

I often say that many political cartoons are like the proverbial picture that is worth a thousand words—if not even more valuable and telling. This week, an incisive cartoon depicts the new government that the anti-Bibi bloc would like to form. The artist depicts a group of newly minted government ministers posing for the traditional group picture, with Naftoli Bennett seated all the way on the right, separated from Yair Lapid and Nitzan Horowitz by an empty chair. The photographer is seen urging him, “Mr. Bennett, please move a bit to the left….”

In truth, while I understand the right wing’s aversion to forming a government supported by Mansour Abbas—who is actually a fairly congenial person and shares many views on important issues with the chareidim—I cannot understand how Bennett and Saar could possibly collaborate with dyed-in-the-wool leftists such as Yair Golan and Nitzan Horowitz, and with anti-religious figures such as Lieberman and Lapid, to form a genuinely left-wing government. As for Lieberman himself, I stopped asking questions long ago. It has been a long time since he has been guided by logic or common sense; his personal vendetta has completely corrupted his reasoning.

Yair Lapid is working with all his might to have his new government brought to the Knesset for a vote this week. He fears that every passing day will work against him. He is certain that his alliance with Bennett isn’t genuine, and he knows it isn’t a simple matter to rely on the Arabs. Strangely, while Netanyahu was vilified for trying to form a government that would require Arab support, these parties have gone on to do the exact same thing.

Moshe Gafni, Yaakov Litzman, and Aryeh Deri held a press conference in the Knesset last Thursday. I watched as they made a last-ditch effort to call on Bennett to come to his senses, urging him not to take this ill-considered step and create a rift on the right. But Bennett seems to be too far gone; it is unlikely he will turn back at this point.

An Event at the Kosel

On Thursday night, I attended the event held every year on the Hebrew anniversary of the liberation of European Jewry from the Nazis. This event is held specifically on the 26th of Iyar rather than May 9, the secular date of the liberation. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Gavriel (German) Zakharyaev, a businessman and leader of the Jewish community in the Caucasus, the Israeli government passed a law requiring the Hebrew date to be commemorated as well.

The event is organized by the Conference of European Rabbis (CER). In addition to the event at the Kosel, the date was marked with other events in additional cities in Israel. A special gathering at the Kosel was attended by Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi, one of the roshei yeshiva of Mir, as well as by Rav Dovid Lau, Rav Moshe Chaim Lau, and Rav Shmuel Rabinovich. Special messages were conveyed from Rabbi Pinchos Goldschmidt, the president of the CER; Rabbi Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France; and Mr. Zakharyaev, the driving force behind the commemorative day. President Putin of Russia also sent a letter in honor of the occasion.

About 300 chief rabbis, avos botei din, and dayonim from 25 countries participated in a live broadcast dedicated to giving thanks to Hashem for the liberation from the Nazis, and davening for the victims of the coronavirus pandemic and the tragedy in Meron.

Rabbi Moshe Lebel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Moscow, spoke from the main shul in Moscow. “Remembrance is an important and sacred element of Yiddishkeit,” he said. “We are commanded to remember six things at all times: Yetzias Mitzrayim, Matan Torah, the war against Amalek, the sin of the egel, the incident when Miriam contracted tzoraas, and the Shabbos day. The first two items attest to Hashem’s might and His love for Bnei Yisroel, and were milestones that shaped us as we developed into a nation. We also remember when Amalek attacked us while we were weak, and how Bnei Yisroel betrayed Hashem and bowed to the egel hazahav. We also remember that Hashem punished Miriam for her act of speaking lashon hora. And we remember Shabbos, the holiest day of the week. All this is included in the commandment of ‘zachor,’ which incorporates both the lowest points and the most sublime moments in our history as a people.”

A Story of Hashgocha Protis

In conclusion, let me tell you a story of hashgocha protis that was shared with me by my son, who learns in a kollel in the Gra shul in Bayit Vegan.

“One day,” he told me, “a yungerman whom I knew from Mir entered the beis medrash and came over to me. He was looking for a kollel and asked if I knew of one that would accept him. I brought him to the other two kollelim in the shul, but they weren’t accepting new members. I told him that everyone in our kollel had a chavrusa and that he probably wouldn’t be accepted, but I had noticed that one of the kollel members had been learning alone for a few days, and I speculated that his chavrusa might have left and thereby opened a spot for a newcomer.

“I advised him to approach the rosh kollel and offer himself as a chavrusa for the fellow who was learning alone. Apparently, my advice was accepted, since I noticed that they began learning together. He thanked me afterward and added that he would be learning without pay until the situation was clarified.

“A few days later, the missing chavrusa reappeared; he had flown out of the country, but now he was back. The new yungerman had no one to learn with, and he was left with no choice but to leave the kollel. The very next day, however, one of the rabbonim in the neighborhood came to the shul and told our rosh kollel that he had a kollel in a small shul, and one of the members of his kollel was seeking a chavrusa. ‘Do you know someone serious who is looking for a place to learn?’ he asked.

“‘In fact, I do,’ the rosh kollel replied. ‘There was an excellent yungerman who wanted to join our kollel; I simply couldn’t accept him because everyone here has a chavrusa already. But you should grab him while he is available!’

“I was asked to find him,” my son related, “since it seemed that I had brought him to the kollel in the first place. I managed to locate him, and he joined the small kollel, which happens to pay a very nice stipend. It is amazing how Hashem manages His world!”