The Mt. Meron Tragedy and Jeremiah 17
On April 30, 45 people were killed—including children—and over 150 wounded in the early hours during the Lag B’Omer celebrations of the revered second-century c.e. sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It has been billed as Israel’s greatest civil, peacetime disaster since the nation’s founding in 1948.
With the dead quickly laid to rest and the dust settling from the shock of the incident, the blame game has begun. The site was a known danger zone. So where does the responsibility lie? The police? The Ultra-Orthodox community? God?
Amid all the commotion, one tidbit jumped out.
As Times of Israel journalist Haviv Rettig Gur wrote, just “hours before the disaster, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri bragged to the Haredi radio station Kol Hai that he had successfully prevented Health Ministry officials from limiting the number of attendees over coronavirus fears.” That’s not so surprising—after all, over 80 percent of adult Israelis have been vaccinated against the virus. But the reasoning that followed was surprising.
“Deri lamented that the professional echelon at the ministry did not grasp that attendees would be protected by the spiritual influence of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century sage commemorated at the Meron festival. ‘The government clerks don’t understand,’ he said. ‘This is a holy day, and the largest gathering of Jews [each year].’ Bad things, he suggested, don’t happen to Jews on religious pilgrimage: ‘One should trust in Rabbi Shimon in times of distress …’” (emphasis added).
Hours later, 45 men and boys lay dead.
The Prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Cursed is the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm …. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7).
The Psalms likewise state: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:8-9). One should trust in Rabbi Shimon in times of distress?
“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his dust; in that very day his thoughts perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God”(Psalm 146:3-5).
Then, on its maiden voyage, in what was an almost impossible alignment of events and circumstances, it sunk—losing over 1,500 men, women and children.
As one English religious leader said following the 1912 tragedy: “Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption”—to human trust. As one United States senator stated in the aftermath investigation: “Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.” Overconfidence, misplaced trust, relaxed regulations—“put[ting] far away the evil day” (Amos 6:3)—all played a role in Friday morning’s tragedy.
Jeremiah 17 also contains a cry for help in time of sore trial. “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for Thou art my praise. … Be not a ruin unto me; Thou art my refuge in the day of evil. … Thou throne of glory, on high from the beginning, Thou place of our sanctuary, Thou hope of Israel, the Lord!” (Jeremiah 17:14, 17, 12-13).
Israel now grapples with what to do following Friday morning’s disaster. Blame the police? Blame the Ultra Orthodox leaders? Blame God? Maybe it will be all of the above. Blame Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? Maybe not. Nor would it make sense, though—after all, “the dead know not any thing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Perhaps a better question would be: In whom should we trust?