Friday, April 30, 2021/18 Iyar, 5781
Parashat Emor Leviticus 21:1−24:23
Today is meant to be a day of celebration. After marking the days between Passover and Shavuot for four and a half weeks, we arrive at Lag B’omer. This lesser-known holiday is filled with picnics, bonfires, learning, music, and dancing. Many people get married on this day or cut their child’s hair for the first time. These celebrations are in no small part tied to the legacy of 2nd century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who died on Lag B’omer. Shimon Bar Yochai asked that his death would not be marked by sadness or mourning but rather joyous celebrations.
Since Shimon Bar Yochai has a tomb on Mt. Meron in Northern Israel, thousands of Jews go there each year on Lag B’omer to celebrate his teachings. Last year, the festivities were cancelled because of the pandemic. This year, the Israeli government allowed Lag B’omer celebrations to resume, with reservations from the health officials who warned about the importance of limiting how many people could attend at one time.
Last night, tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews arrived at Mt. Meron. The sheer volume of people created great risk during the pandemic and caused a stampede that claimed the lives of at least 45 individuals and injured well over a hundred more. A day of joy turned into one of deep tragedy.
Lag B’omer is meant to be a respite of joy after a solemn four and a half weeks. The Talmud teaches that Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students, and they all died during the first thirty-two days of the Omer. On the thirty-third day the dying ceased, and the people could celebrate that they were safe at last.
The Talmud explains that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because “they did not treat each other with respect.” (Yevamot 62b) In their zealousness to practice Judaism, they neglected to be civil, nurture relationships, and act in the community’s best interest.
Centuries later, thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews traveled to Mt. Meron on Lag B’omer, filled with a zealous desire to celebrate, despite the risks of gathering in large numbers. Their actions demonstrate what can happen when we become so focused on what we want to do that we lose sight of what is in the community’s best interest.
On Lag B’omer, the Talmud reminds us that the most important Jewish value is respecting other human beings. We should celebrate holidays and find opportunities to delight in our tradition. We can find ways to gather safely as we get vaccines, and Los Angeles opens up. As we do so, may we be wise enough to temper our enthusiasm with actions to keep ourselves and those around us safe.
Today we mourn the lives of people who tragically and avoidably died. May their memory forever be a blessing. May this horrific incident inspire us to make thoughtful decisions when we gather, always rooted in our desire to respect human life’s sanctity.
Rabbi Cassi Kail