Everywhere in the Jewish world, people are shaken. With Covid fading, we had thought we could take a breath of relief. We suffered enough. We were shaken up and changed our outlook on life. We aren’t the same as we were a year ago. Arab terror dissipated over the past few years. Jews felt safer. The Har Nof massacre, the Bus 12 bombing, Sbarro, Bais Yisroel, Itamar, and other mass casualty incidents faded into a very distant memory.
We thought we could breathe again. We thought the middas hadin had taken a back seat and the Malach Hamovess had taken a break. We were wrong. The Chevlei Moshiach continue. Hakadosh Boruch Hu yorad legano lilkot shoshanim. Another wake-up call. Another reminder.
During Sefirah, we observe certain hilchos aveilus, as we mourn the passing of the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva, who were tragically smitten during this period for sins of bein adam lachaveiro. But on Lag Ba’omer, the aveilus takes a break, because on this day, the gezeirah ceased. And since then, Lag Ba’omer has been a day of joy, an eis rekod.
Not this year. This year, Lag Ba’omer turned into an eis sefod.
Everyone was in shock. People searched in vain for appropriate words. The words didn’t come, only tears.
Shlomo Hamelech writes, “Eis sefod v’eis rekod, there is a time for sad dirges and hespeidim and a time for joyous dancing.” This year on Lag Ba’omer, they overlapped.
Something that is not supposed to happen, happened. How do we process it? What is there to say? What is there to write?
Everything that was important before Thursday night ceased to be important. There is so much pain, so much grief.
As I was davening Friday morning, I said a posuk I’ve been saying every day for decades, without giving it a second thought. This time, it was different.
We say in Pesukei Dezimrah, “Lemaan yizamercha chavod velo yidom Hashem Elokai le’olam odeka.” Most of us say it without ever thinking what it means. This time, as I was saying it, it hit me. We say to Hakadosh Boruch Hu that we want to sing His praises without being silenced. Then we end off by saying, “Hashem is my G-d, I will always thank and praise You.”
Whatever the posuk usually means, the morning after the tragedy it said to me as follows. We ask Hashem to always be able to sing His praises without being interrupted in the midst of our singing with a besurah that causes us to be thrust into a matzav of “vayidom,” a tragedy in response to which there are no words to express and give voice to our grief.
Perhaps you have seen the clip of the multitudes in the area where the Toldos Aharon Rebbe was preparing to light his medurah in Meron. They were together as one, all different types of Jews, holding on to each other and rocking back and forth as they sang, “Ani maamin b’emunah sheleimah bevias haMoshiach,” in the beautiful old-time tune we all know. A few minutes later, some of them were dead. Others were injured, hurt, or trampled. The music stopped. The singing voices were stilled. It was “Vayidom,” as the posuk describes Aharon Hakohein following the terrible tragedy at the chanukas haMishkon. The eis rekod became an eis sefod.
Woe is to us that such a calamitous tragedy can occur in our time. Forty-five holy people of all ages who had come to a holy place to daven, had their lives taken from them.
Rabi Shimon said (Gemara Sukkah 45b) that he and his son, Rabi Elozor, who is buried near him, could free everyone from din. What happened Thursday night right next to their kevorim was such a terrible gezeirah that, apparently, even they could not prevent it from being carried out. It didn’t happen on a day when Klal Yisroel has suffered tragedies through the ages. It happened on a day of joy, a day of achdus, a day of simcha, in one of the holiest places we have.
But through it all, we must be able to say, “Hashem Elokai l’olam odeka.” No matter what befalls me, no matter what tzaros we experience, no matter the amount or degree of pain, our faith remains steadfast. We know that it is all from Him, and for a higher purpose. From the depths of vayidom, we rise, and in the midst of it all, odeka, we praise Hashem.
We are Yidden. Maaminim bnei maaminim. That is who we are and that is what we do.
The Sefer Hachinuch writes in Parshas Emor (Mitzvah 264) concerning the laws of aveilus that the Torah commands upon the passing of a close relative: “The Torah obligates the observance of these actions to bring the person to be promoted to adjust his thoughts to feel the pain of the tragedy that has befallen him. Then he will know and contemplate in his soul that it was his own sins that caused him to be brought to the painful situation in which he is in, for Hashem only brings pain and suffering to people on account of their sins.”
The Sefer Hachinuch continues: “And this is the bedrock of our faith, anachnu bnei baalei das Yehudis hayekorah, as members of the beautiful Jewish faith. And when a person puts his heart to this, yoshis bedaato laasos teshuvah veyachshir maasov kefi kocho – he will come to do teshuvah on his misdeeds and will improve his actions as best as he is able to.”
What else is there left to say after that rousing message? As Yidden, we internalize the pain and sadness of a tragedy, and we improve ourselves and our actions, each person to the best of his ability.
When I was a bochur learning at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, a fellow bochur had an asthma attack one night as he was sleeping. He did not survive. Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, then also a bochur learning at Bais Medrash Govoah, was a close friend of the niftar and he was very broken. He lived on the Lower East Side and had a special relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Simcha Bunim turned to the gadol hador for chizuk.
“Rebbe,” he said, “ich bin tzubrochen. My friend passed away suddenly and I am broken. I need chizuk.”
“Simcha Bunim,” Rav Moshe said to him lovingly, “Ah Yid vert nit tzubrochen. Ah Yid vert besser. A Jew doesn’t get broken. A Jew becomes better.”
How do we react to tragedy? Not by becoming broken. We are maaminim bnei maaminim. We are people of faith. We know that nothing happens by itself. Everything that happens is because Hashem willed it so for a greater purpose than we can understand. The Yiddishe way to react to tragedy is by improving ourselves, by becoming better. Yachshir maasov kefi kocho.
“Ah Yid vert nit tzubrochen. Ah Yid vert besser.”
Why did it happen? That is a question we do not ask. The situation in Meron on Lag Ba’omer has been like this for many years. In previous years, we merited to be miraculously spared from tragedy. This year, we weren’t.
What is the answer? More love, less hate, more caring, and more vatranus. What’s the answer? We must change and grow and become better, even if it is one small step at a time.
We heard. We got the message.
A young boy, who fell and whose father lay next to him, cried out Shema Yisroel. He was saved. His father was saved. His brother, Yedidya z”l, didn’t make it. The boy was asked, “What were you thinking during those awful moments as you lay on the floor crushed?” And he said, “I was thinking about emunah and bitachon. I was thinking that only Hashem can save me. And He did.”
What are we to think? The same thing that boy thought. We are to be reminded that we must strengthen our emunah and bitachon. Only Hashem can save us. There is so much swirling around us, so much uncertainty, so much pain. We have to know that with emunah and bitachon, Hashem will save us.
Stay away from people who are divisive. Stay away from people who are cynical. Stay away from people who don’t take emunah and bitachon seriously, from people who don’t take davening and learning seriously. Stay away from sites that dull your kedusha, sensitivity and intelligence, and keep away from sites and people who mock rabbonim and roshei yeshiva as if they were managers of your losing baseball team. Look for ways to grow and to improve, to be better and to do better.
Levayah after levayah, forty-five times, family and friends gathered to say goodbye, to cry together, to mourn together. And at each levayah, they resolved to do better and to be better. Hundreds of people are now sitting shivah.
Each levayah was painful. Who can count the tears? Who can measure the pain?
I watched one, the levayah of Yossi Kohn. I saw his picture and felt as if I knew him. A delightful bochur, full of life, with an infectious smile, whose energy was dedicated to Torah and to growing as a Yid. The type of person you want as a friend, a chavrusah, a brother, a son.
Like so many others, he went to daven, to spend time in the holy place. Seventeen bochurim left together. Only fifteen returned. Yossi Kohn and Dovi Steinmetz didn’t make it back. In the prime of their lives, these two bochurim who learned at Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim were plucked and taken to Mesivta D’rokia, alongside Rabi Shimon and all the tzaddikim and good Yidden of the past 5,781 years.
The hespeidim ripped at the depths of the neshomah. Thousands of bochurim, yungeleit, and gutteh Yidden stood on the streets of Bais Yisroel soaking in the words of inspiration, the mournful prose and poetry of the eis sefod. With muffled cries and tears, the bnei baalei das Yehudis hayekorah suffered searing pain and accepted upon themselves kabbalos besser tzu veren, to be better.
Based upon the posuk in this week’s parsha, “Vahalachtem imi b’keri, veholachti imochem bechamas keri,” the Rambam famously writes in Hilchos Ta’anios (1:2-3) that we must know that when a tragedy is visited upon Klal Yisroel, it is because of our sinful actions. It is incumbent upon us to do teshuvah to remove the tzarah. But if the people do not do teshuvah and do not cry out to Hashem, instead they try to find rational explanations for why the tragedy occurred, that is cruelty and will cause them to continue to sin and be punished further.
Ill winds are blowing in Eretz Yisroel. Enemies of Torah and those who are faithful to it are plotting their next moves as they prepare themselves to take power. Arab terrorists have stepped up their attacks, shooting up three bachurei yeshiva on Sunday. It is incumbent upon all of us to hear the call that emanated to the world from Har Meron and follow the directive of the Rambam to prevent further deaths, attacks, pain, and suffering of all types.
The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (7:5) that all the nevi’im commanded Klal Yisroel to do teshuvah. He adds, “Yisroel will only be redeemed through doing teshuvah. And the Torah has already promised that at the End of Days, Yisroel will do teshuvah and will be immediately redeemed.”
As we seek to rectify and improve ourselves, let us also cheer the sad, restore hope to those who have lost theirs, rejuvenate those who have become bitter and depressed, and train ourselves to be better rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, the defining attributes of Am Yisroel. Sefirah is a time of self-improvement, particularly in aspects related to how we treat and deal with each other. Now is a most auspicious time for each of us to work on curbing aveiros that stem from sinas chinom, which we know causes the redemption to be postponed and prevents Moshiach from delivering us.
The rejoicing and dancing on Lag Ba’omer in Meron and around the world are expressions of the neshomah’s yearning, an appreciation of Klal Yisroel’s rebbi, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, and the heights he reached. He revealed the depth and potential of each Yid, assuring us that wherever he is, a Jew can always raise himself ever higher.
Shortly after the Second World War, a group of survivors gathered at a tish of the Klausenberger Rebbe. The pain of loss and devastation was evident on their faces, as they struggled to rebuild and rise above the loneliness and sorrow. It was Shabbos Parshas Bechukosai. The rebbe discussed the juxtaposition of the parsha of eirchin, which addresses the valuation of a person who pledges his worth to the Bais Hamikdosh, and the Tochacha, the horrific account of what befalls Klal Yisroel if the nation disregards the Torah.
“The full erech, value, of a Yid,” the rebbe explained, “can only be appreciated after he experiences the Tochacha. After encountering suffering of the magnitude such as that which we have just endured, we get to see the real value of a person. When we see someone who went through such a terrible tragedy able to stand tall and feel strong with his or her faith intact, that is worth more than anything.”
The rebbe and the penniless lonely people around him did not let what happened to them break them. They did not become tzubrochen, weighed down with self-pity. They became “besser,” and they made the world besser, going on to lead productive lives spent rebuilding, replanting, and regenerating.
From where do we derive the strength to persevere, to look forward and not backward; not to become broken, but to accept everything b’ahavah.
The Ramchal writes (Daas Tevunos 158) that when the Bnei Yisroel came to Har Sinai, Hakadosh Boruch Hu provided them with the strength and fortitude they would require to be able to properly serve Him. That strength remained with them, enabling them to be able to properly observe the mitzvos.
Yes, it requires superhuman strength to be able to go on, but we have been endowed by the Creator with that strength.
Rabi Shimon bar Yochai filled the world with light and life. He revealed the deep secrets of the world, of Torah and of creation. We are drawn to Meron searching for some of that light and life. We study his Torah, and much of how we conduct our lives is based on the teachings of Rabi Shimon in niglah in Mishnah and Gemara, and in nistar in the Zohar. May Hakadosh Boruch Hu enable us to grasp on to the tree of life Rabi Shimon represents and shine his great light upon us. May we be zoche to be mekabel Moshiach very soon, if not today, when the light of Hashem and His Torah will overwhelm the world, and then we will understand this tragedy and those that preceded it, reunited with these korbanos kedoshim utehorim and all of those who came before us.