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A day of national tragedy in Israel

In large measure, this has been the worst day in the history of modern Israel. Let's study some Talmud in order to understand it.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews look at the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during the Lag b’Omer festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at the religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

(RNS) — It was supposed to be a celebration.

The occasion was a minor Jewish holiday, Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot, between liberation from Egypt and the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

Lag b’Omer has become, for many Hasidim, an opportunity for a sacred pilgrimage to Mount Meron, in the north of Israel — to the grave of sage Shimon bar Yochai for a bonfire-lighting ceremony. It was there that it happened — a stampede that has, at the time of this writing, claimed 45 lives and caused many injuries.

To be clear: In terms of civilian casualties, this was the worst day in the history of Israel.

This tragedy was preventable. There was serious overcrowding at the event.

It is the same kind of overcrowding that has included the flouting of social distancing among the Haredim, which itself has caused another natural disaster — the spread of COVID-19.

This all happened at the grave of a mythical master whose story might well be the explanation of some of the social problems that beset the Haredi community.

Shimon bar Yochai was a sage of the 2nd century CE. The reason for veneration? According to legend, bar Yochai was the author of the cardinal mystical text, the Zohar.

When you consider that Hasidism is a popular manifestation of Jewish mysticism, you understand the attraction of bar Yochai.

But, there is another essential piece of the bar Yochai tradition, and it explains the Haredi attitude toward the world.

It is, in fact, the dark side of the television series “Shtisel” — the characters in which, let the record note, are not Hasidim, but Mitnagdim — devotees of the Lithuanian tradition of Talmud study.

Here is the essential bar Yochai text — Talmud, Shabbat 33b:

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Shimon sat together.

Rabbi Yehuda said, “How fine are the deeds of the Roman nation; they set up markets, they set up bridges, they set up bathhouses.”

Rabbi Yose was quiet. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “All that they set up, they set up for their own needs; they set up markets to place prostitutes in them, bathhouses to pamper themselves, bridges to take taxes from them.”

Rabbi Yehuda thought that the Roman occupation of Judea had some good features to it. After all, it beautified the land. Rabbi Shimon poo-pooed the entire Roman project.

This is actually about what it means to live in a secular society. Are there good things, or should you distance yourselves from those things?

Rabbi Yehudah went and told over their words to the Roman officials. They decreed that Shimon should be killed. Shimon and his son went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree and a spring of water were created for them. They would take off their clothes and would sit up to their necks in sand; the whole day they would study. They sat for twelve years in the cave.

When they came out of the cave, they saw that people were plowing and planting. Shimon said: “They are abandoning eternal life and involving themselves with temporary life.” Every place upon which they would set their eyes would immediately burn. A heavenly voice came out and said to them, “Did you come out of the cave to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!”

Shimon and his son realize that the outside/Roman world poses a danger to them — which, in fact, it does — a real, physical danger.

So, they take refuge in a cave. The cave is a womb. They are passively fed. They live as naked infants. They indulge themselves in pure spiritual ecstasy — the study of Torah.

Or, to put it bluntly: They are students in a perpetual yeshiva. Others take care of their physical needs for them — i.e. subsidized lifelong study. Again, as in “Shtisel.”

What happens when they finally emerge into the light? They see people working, and they scoff. They cannot tolerate the world as it is — the world of getting your hands dirty. So, too, the valorization of the value of study in the Haredi world — sometimes at the expense of making a living.

To be blunt, Shimon and his son could not tolerate the “real” world. Their negativity toward the world is, in a word, incendiary.

But, here is the point: God cannot tolerate their intolerance! Their denial of the world, their gazing at the world and the flames of hatred and mistrust coming out of their eyes — this is not God’s way! God says to them: Go back to your cave.

The world cannot bear your intolerance of the world.

Alas, this is the message that is implicit in this great disaster that befell members of the Hasidic sect, Toldot Aharon.

To quote the Jerusalem Post:

It is perhaps the most insular, well-organized and cohesive of the groups that make up Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community; any type of intervention in its domestic affairs is tantamount to a total usurping of the community’s belief system. (It) was established in Jerusalem by Rabbi Aharon Roth in 1928 as an offshoot of Satmar … (They) live in the heart of Jerusalem despite their staunch opposition to Zionism. They have developed extensive social and cultural barriers to protect their community from the bustling secularism of Jaffa Road and Ben-Yehuda Street, located less than a kilometer away.

Does this sound familiar? In their rejection of the world as it is — not to mention their feverish opposition to Zionism, like their parent sect, Satmar — they are the spiritual descendants of Shimon bar Yochai, at whose tomb they gathered and at whose tomb they died.

This is a tragedy. It will raise many questions — all of them ongoing questions — about the role and place of such groups within the Jewish state.

Let us wait to ask those questions.

Today, let us pray for healing for those who were injured.

Today, let us mourn those who died — with open hands and hearts to their survivors.