The Root of the Meron Tragedy

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Lag Ba'Omer celebrations on Mount Meron in the Galilee (Photo: Yolen Haik/GPO)

The Parashat haShavuah, Torah portion, from the time of the disaster at Mount Meron was Emor, which began at Lev. 21:1 & 6. Adonai said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, ‘No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people. They shall be holy to their G-d and not profane חָלַל the name of their G-d, for they present the offerings by fire to Adonai, the food of their G-d; so they shall be holy.’

Every Lag Ba’Omer in Israel, several hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox Jews gather on Mt. Meron to pray and seek blessings from rabbis, especially Shimon Bar Yochai. Haredim believe by doing this that their prayers will reach G-d through the spirits of their deceased leaders. Of course last year they weren’t allowed to gather at all, so this year, although only 10,000 were granted entry, over 100,000 showed up. Many questions have now been raised and legal action is proceeding to discover why 45 Jews are now dead and 100’s were injured in the tragedy at Meron.

A bit of history would be helpful to understand the root of what happened. Even after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, Jewish followers of Yeshua from Nazareth lived in peace with their fellow Jews, celebrating the Leviticus 23 Feasts together. Those who didn’t believe in Yeshua were disappointed in Him because they believed that the true Messiah would set them free from Roman oppression, but there was peace between the two factions.

The division began through three main characters:

  • Rabbi Akiva, the leading contributor to the Mishnah and Midrash who is considered the father of rabbinic Judaism. He was martyred by Hadrian, the Roman leader in 130-135 BC.
  • Bar Kochba (Son of the Star) who Akiva declared to be the true Messiah. He amassed a huge army to revolt against Rome but failed and later fell from grace as he even had rabbis executed whom he suspected of spying on him.
  • Shimon Bar Yochai, Akiva’s prize student who survived Hadrian’s massacre of the Jews by hiding in caves. He later came to the Galilee where he wrote the Zohar and other mystical writings.

When Rabbi Akiva proclaimed Bar Kochba to be the Messiah, this set the seal on the division between followers of Yeshua versus Bar Kochba. Even if the followers of Yeshua wanted to join the revolt against Rome, when they were told that it was led by the “true Messiah” Bar Kochba, they declined. The Messianic Jews then fled to the Decapolis, which preserved their lives as Hadrian who devised a final solution for Jewry, began to exterminate every Jew in the Jerusalem area. To this day the distinction between Messianic versus Rabbinic Jews has remained and Bar Kochba’s defeat signaled the end of Jewish life in Israel until the twentieth century.

So we return to modern day Meron where the primary gravesite for worship is Shimon Bar Yochai’s. The tradition on Meron is for the various Hasidic sects to take turns lighting their bonfires. The tragedy began just as the sect named Toldos Aaron, a fervently anti-Zionist movement out of Mea She’arim, began to present their offering by fire.

In the Parasha, the high priest of the Toldot (generations) of Aaron willingly became defiled for the sake of removing the sin of the people. So could this be Adonai’s judgment for offering strange fire and praying to the spirits of dead rabbis?  Know before Whom you stand – דע לפני מי אתה עומד

One more thought – the word used in Lev. 21:6 for profane is חָלַל which also means to defile, pollute or desecrate. But it also means to fatally wound or pierce.  When Yeshua was pierced on the tree, He was separated from His Father in Heaven and so He was profaned as our High Priest. But through His sacrifice of laying down His life, we have been redeemed. May the generations of Aaron in Israel today realize this eternal truth.

A perfect Scripture for this whole situation is from Zechariah 13:1-2.

“On that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for defilement. And it will come about on that day,” declares the L-rd of Hosts, “that I will eliminate the names of the idols from the land, and they will no longer be remembered; and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirit from the land.

May it be soon, Oh Adonai!