I had mixed feeling about going to Meron on Lag BaOmer. My wife and kids were excited about joining the hundreds of thousands of celebrants, but I was quite content to sit on my mechutan’s mirpeset (balcony) in Tzfat and look at the lights of Meron across the valley.
I generally don’t like endless singing and dancing; I wonder what the revelers are thinking about and how much it really has to do with ahavas Hashem. I also wonder how it connects with the rather severe personality of Rav Shimon we meet in the Gemara. Maybe it’s my nature as a Yekke or a cynic. In any event, I felt little connection to the crowds at Meron and was grateful to avoid them.
And then, shortly after midnight, I heard a siren. And then another. And then another. Having lived in Israel during the Intifada, I immediately feared that a terrorist attack had occurred. And then the phone call arrived. An acquaintance on a bus to Meron was told the bus would be making a U-turn – a tragedy had happened in Meron and no one would be allowed to enter.
As news of the extent of the catastrophe trickled in, worry for my wife and kids and grandchildren grew stronger, which could not be quickly assuaged due to the overwhelmed phone system. Soon, thankfully, we were able to communicate via WhatsApp, and I was grateful to know they were unharmed.
More hours of waiting, checking the news, contemplating, saying Tehillim, and listening to the unending wail of ambulances headed to Ziv Medical Center passed, but I felt something was lacking. Then I opened a message forwarded from a lady named BatSheva Sadan. Here are some excerpts:
A moment after I breathed a sigh of relief when I found out that all my children were fine – I started crying.
I cried for my brief feeling of happiness and relief that this was the disaster of others; not my disaster. I cried for the sigh of relief that I was not one of the terrified mothers desperate to know the fate of their loved ones. I cried realizing how I had differentiated myself from dozens of families whose lives have changed, who will now carry a never-ending pain.
I cried as I realized how far I was from actualizing the mitzvah “Love your fellow as yourself.” On this special day – when we supposedly have completed internalizing the message of the plague decimating the disciples of Rabbi Akiva for not practicing this teaching of their great rebbe – I realized that we still do not understand anything. I still see us as separate, I still do not physically and emotionally feel pain that is not mine.
How small and petty I felt reflecting on my attitude only a few hours earlier. How much I need to work on my Ahavat Yisrael, on my humility. How far I am from truly being an ohev Yisrael.
The mitzvah of “love your fellow as yourself” is actually quite difficult. But, as Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch notes, the commandment is not v’ahavata re’acha kamocha but v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha. We should treat anything that pertains to our fellow as if it pertains to us. We should treat him as we would wish to be treated. We should be as concerned about what happens to him as we are about what happens to ourselves.
This is achievable. And it includes being tolerant of the styles, desires, and quirks of others, and appreciating that they might enjoy things we don’t. And it certainly includes feeling and sharing their pain and happiness to the extent we possibly can.
Finally, it includes going beyond one’s nature – one of the great lessons we learn from Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. Rav Shimon emerged a changed man after hiding in a cave for a dozen years. He became tolerant and appreciative of simple people who expressed their love of Hashem differently than he did. He looked to help society and contribute constructively to solve community problems rather that exclusively focus on his own spiritual growth and learning.
May we know no more sorrow, and may Lag BaOmer transform again into a day of unbridled joy.