Where Were the Leviim? The Tragedy of Meron

The stampede on Mount Meron early Friday during an annual pilgrimage, one of Israel’s worst civil disasters, was foreshadowed for years in warnings by local politicians, journalists and ombudsmen that the site had become a death trap.

On Saturday, the Israeli news media reported that senior police officials had blamed the Ministry of Religious Services because it had signed off earlier in the week on safety procedures for the event.

        -The New York Times, May 1,2021

Our cheeks still glisten with our tears; our beards remain damp with our grief. Forty-five pious Jews wrenched from us; trampled in midst of our Lag B’Omer joy and celebration. Our voices were singing loudly and joyously and then, suddenly… stunned silence.

We are silent still.

What have we to say?

We acknowledge God daily and accept His judgements. And yet… forty-five precious souls! How can it be? How can the loss go unchallenged?

The number forty-five is written in Hebrew, mem-hay ­– mah, “what?” What can we say? What can we ask? We dare not question God, yet we are obligated to determine man’s accountability.

Who is responsible for securing Meron, the resting place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? Who is responsible for ensuring the safety of those who come to pray at his tomb; those who experience miracles and relief by simply uttering his name?

Who are the Leviim?

The Times noted that, “Different parts of the site fall under the jurisdiction of four competing private religious institutions, all of which resist state intervention” and that the lack of a single, responsible authority contributed to the tragedy.

Who are the Leviim?

We are only too familiar with the analyses that have been rendered over the years, analyses that identified the blatant dangers to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who make their way to Meron each Lag B’Omer. Rather than caring and thoughtful leadership to address the dangers, we hear only excuses and rationalizations.

Or, we hear silence.

Suddenly, no one is “in charge”.

The most fundamental mitzvah is v’chai ba’heim – you shall live. This is basic. Everything we do is to ensure life. When we build a home with a roof or porch if there is any chance someone may fall, we are obligated to erect a ma’akeh – a fence, a guardrail, that will ensure that no one’s life is ever in danger.

Where were the guardrails at Meron?

Who was responsible for making sure they were in place?

In Bamidbar, we learn that the details of God’s Sanctuary are never to be left to chance. There must be a Shevet Levi. Meron is a Godly sanctuary! Yet, no Levites took responsibility for it. Ha’zar ha’karev – aliens approached, with the predictable results we now grieve.

To those who confuse not asking God, “mah?” with failing the obligation to demand “mah?” of man I say, ein somchin al ha’neis – We are taught not to rely on miracles! We dare not knowingly take risks thinking God will perform a miracle to save us.

On Shabbat, we learned in Daf Yomi in Yoma (21) about the ten miracles that occurred in the Beit Hamikdash, including on all the Shalosh Regalim when all Jews came to the Temple. The pilgrims stood comfortably, even though they were tzfufufin – squeezed in! Squeezed in and yet they were nevertheless able to mishtachavin revachin – able to comfortably bow down. Countless more Jews than in Meron, all standing and bowing comfortably! Of course, in the Beit HaMikdash there were open miracles. They were worthy, they experienced Gilui Shechinah with no masks. We dare not squeeze hundreds of thousands of Jews into a small area and await miracles...

Where are our Leviim to guide us?

The Leviim proved themselves to be loyal. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, they showed their absolute loyalty to God. They were ligyon shel Melech. These were the people to oversee all that pertains in God’s Sanctuary.

God specifically informs Moshe, Ach et mateh Levi lo tifkod – “But you shall not count the tribe of Levi.” Not only were they counted separately, they were assigned guardianship of the Mishkan. As God’s chosen tribe they were to lead and safeguard all that is sacred. In the next posuk (Bamidbar 1:50-51) Moshe is told, Ve’atah hafked – “Now, you appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle... over all its utensils and everything that belongs to it.... They shall carry the Tabernacle and all its utensils, and they shall minister to it; and they shall encamp around the Tabernacle. When the Tabernacle journeys, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle encamps, the Levites shall erect it, and v’hazar h’karev yumat – and an alien who approaches shall die.

They dared not allow any zar – any non-Levite to even come close, let alone assume a Levite responsibility.

 Hafked et ha’leviim. “Hafked” suggests pekuda, a command, reminiscent of verse in Esther (2:3) cited by Rashi, Vayafked ha’melech pekidim – and the king assigned officers… When the king, l’havdil, when God, assigns you a task, it is yours; it is non-transferable. Rashbam explains that the Levites were not counted with the general population because they were not to assimilate with the rest. They had a specific task, they oversaw the Mishkan. They were allowed no distractions. No excuses. They were responsible for anything and everything relating to the inside or outside of the Mishkan. All of it.

God selected His most loyal tribe to oversee His House; there were no shared roles. No committees. No vying for prominence. No posturing for donors. There was just responsibility.

Hafked. A command – this is an assignment for you and you only. Ve’atah hafked et ha’leviim – Now you, appoint the Levites… The Ba’al HaTurim notes two instances where the term hafked is found. Once, in our parasha, and a second time in Tehilim (109:6) – hafked alav rasha, appoint a wicked man over him (referring to David or Israel’s curses upon their treacherous enemies).

“This corresponds with what is said,” the Ba’al HaTurim continues, “… ‘that one is not assigned to be a shoter [a leader] in this world unless it is decreed above that he be a rasha. This is the meaning of hafked et ha’leviim, that they became shotrim, as the posuk in Tehilim reads, hafked alav rasha.”

In other words, a person does not become a leader, shoter, down below unless he has been deemed a wicked man, rasha, above.”

This statement was astonishing to my grandfather, HaGaon Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran ZT’L. In his Yalkut HaChanochi 50, he says our common understanding is exactly the opposite. That is, that one does not rise to a position of leadership unless all his sins are forgiven (Sanhedrin 14a)! But then he cites the Rambam (in his commentary to Avot 1:10) where he quotes the Sages saying that, “When a person is appointed as a leader below [here in this world], he is deemed a wicked man [rasha] above.”

The Gilyon HaShas notes that the source of such a statement in Bavli, Yerushalmi or Midrash is not known! It turns our thinking topsy-turvy. How can our leaders be reshaim? Contemplating this seemingly incomprehensible puzzle in midst of the indescribable Meron tragedy feels beyond our capability.

Where are the Leviim?

And now, with my cheeks still damp with tears of sadness and grief, I find myself contemplating my grandfather’s profound response and realize that his response speaks to us here and now. It seems to me my grandfather explains that this puzzling passage should be interpreted based on the statement found in today’s (Monday, 21 Iyar) Daf Yomi (Coincidence? There are no coincidences!) – “When one is appointed as a communal leader, he is destined to become wealthy. As we see that prior to Shaul formally assuming the kingship, he counted his soldiers using broken shards (va’ifkedem b’bazek) but later when he is fully acknowledged as king by all, he counted his soldiers with sheep (va’yifkedem b’tlaim). In the meantime, he became wealthy.

My grandfather notes that Sefer Recanti teaches that in the heavens above the Hebrew alphabet is written in reverse order of tav-shin-resh-kuf … alef, whereas down below in our world all is written forward, alef-bet-gimel… In the heavens above, if it is written that a certain person will be wealthy (ashir – ayin-shin-resh) here below it is written resh-shin-ayin – rasha. That is, rasha doesn’t mean “wicked person” here but rather, “wealthy person”, as rasha (resh-shin-ayin) is the reversal of ashir (ayin-shin-resh) – becoming a leader is a sign of wealth. The posuk in Iyov (38:14) confirms this idea that reversed spellings are used in heaven, as heaven is like the stamp that creates an imprint on earth – the imprinted image is the mirror of the image on the stamp itself.

My grandfather shows, when assuming leadership, ashir and rasha, mirror each other. This is the key that unlocks the meaning of the puzzling Ba’al HaTurim, that one is not appointed to leadership down here in our world, unless he is a rasha above. Rasha above so that he may be ashir below.

Contemplating the Meron tragedy and the obligation to ask man, mah? (45, mem-hay), I find myself turning my grandfather’s words over and over and enlarging on his profound explanation. He concludes, “…that above it was written about him rasha, but here below it reads ayin-shin-resh (ashir) and lo and behold he is dressed royally and acts the role, and therefore we understand, ‘that one does not become a leader below, unless he becomes resh-shin-ayin above.” So, let’s be clear, the leaders who we expect to lead us as the Leviim of old often appear as ashir here below, in the Israeli Knesset, at various Committee plenums and meetings; they “talk the talk” but in the heavens, they are deemed a rasha. In the heavens, the truth is known; they “talk the talk” but they don’t “walk the walk”. Very often the way things are “read” here below is not the way they are read in the Heavens, and vice versa. This insight is inherent in my grandfather’s profound interpretation.