An estimated half-million Jews from all over Eretz Yisrael and the world converged on the kever of the holy Tanna Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron on Wednesday night and Thursday for the annual Lag BaOmer celebration.
Despite the huge throngs streaming in and out of Meron from as early as Wednesday afternoon to Thursday evening, there were relatively few reports of delays, traffic jams and other disruptions, compared to past years.
This was thanks to the countless hours of preparation that began months ago, the orderly behavior of visitors and the cooperation of the bus companies and the Israeli police, who began stepping up their presence in the area days ago. But most of all, to a timely outpouring of siyatta diShmaya.
As every year, the real story of Lag BaOmer cannot be told. It is not about crowd estimates or organizing efforts or police coordination or even the extraordinary chessed on the part of those who provide food and drink for weary travelers, medical treatment for the injured, or transportation for those with physical limitations who could not attend without their help.
For the real story is inside. Inside, at the kever itself, where thousands upon thousands daven for yeshuos, shidduchim, hatzlachah in Torah and every kind of ezras Hashem, with all their heart. In the courtyard and its environs, Klal Yisrael, in all its variegations, from chassidic to Modern Orthodox, yeshivish to working guys, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, young and old, came together for joyous dancing and singing on the hilula of Rabi Shimon.
Most of all, the real story is in the hearts of those who were there, as well as those who participated in the hilula in a thousand other places and were with them in spirit. What they felt is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to capture in words, though words are all we have to work with.
Hamodia spoke with a few of those who were there, and were kind enough to try to put into words for us what they felt in their hearts:
Shia S., a journalist from Antwerp, flies to Israel almost every year for Lag BaOmer. “But this year,” he said, “was something special. On the bus from Karmiel to Meron, we all sang together Bar Yochai. It was so beautiful, I could only say, Mi k’amcha Yisrael!, Who is like your people, Israel!
“The singing, the dancing. It was like Simchas Torah. And inside, at the kever, people were davening together, crying, like it was Yom Kippur! I cried along with everyone else. It just cannot be explained to someone who’s never been there.”
Rabbi Dovid Klein goes every year. He says it’s a major part of the annual ruchiynus for himself, his wife and children.
“What can you say? You know the story of the Ohr HaChayim – after riding two days on a donkey to get to Meron, he crawled up the mountanside on his hands and knees, crying and groaning that he wasn’t worthy of being at the kever of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.
“We have such an incredible zechus to be able to come here. We just get on a bus and we’re here in an hour or two – it’s nothing.”
Rabbi Klein quotes from the last stanza of the Song of Bar Yochai: “Ohr mufleh rom maaleh, yareisa milihabit ki rav lah/taalumah v’ain koreh lah, namt ayin lo seshurecha” – “When you reached the highest level of the mysterious hidden light, you feared to gaze due to the enormity of its radiance. It [is the most hidden level of G-d’s Will and Purpose which] is called No-thing, concerning which [G-d] said, “No man can see Me [and remain physically alive].”
“It’s a reference to the upper sefirah of keser,” said Rabbi Klein. “Rabi Shimon was scared to look at it – it was so bright, you can’t see it, as if it doesn’t exist, like the sun.”
“Ruchniyus is so bright, so blinding, we can’t see it. We’re overwhelmed by it.”
He also told Hamodia what happened to him just after arriving on Wednesday night at Meron: “I sat down at one of the those hachnasas orchim stations and was eating a piece of kugel, when this person comes up to me and says hello. So I said hello back. He asks me my name, where I’m from? (Tzefas) What do I do? (I teach in a yeshivah.) How many children do I have? (Seven)
“Then he shakes my hand, slipping me 500 shekels! And that was it, he walked away. I maasered it on the spot, and figured that was pretty good for starters on Lag BaOmer.”
The night wasn’t all profit, though. Rabbi Klein mentioned that in the crowd near the kever (no he wasn’t able to get into the kever itself this year), he lost a button from his coat.
Shai Beneli, a yeshivah bachur from Lakewood learning in Israel, returned from Meron on Thursday morning, glowing from the experience. Shai and his friends took a bus to Teverya, and from there direct buses left continuously for Meron. “There was just one bus after another. Every one was packed with people, all going to Meron, and the atmosphere was, you felt like you were already there,” he said.
Shai is a sturdily built fellow, but he said that the crowds were such that he could not make his way inside to the kever. “Even outside in the courtyard it was so packed that the people just carried you along.”
One is reminded of the comment of the Rav MiBartenura on the Mishnah in Avos that describes the miracle in the Mikdash of how the crowd would be crowded while standing, but were still able to spread out when bowing down. Omdim tefufim, mishtachavim b’revacha. He explains that tefufim, crowded, derives from the word tzaf, which means to float. They were so crowded that the crowd would lift you up, as if you were floating along in the air.
The night was filled with singing dancing and partaking of the abundance of food and drink, including roast lamb, kugel and fresh baked goods, depending on which tent one was in.
Shimson F., originally from Detroit, now living in Israel, said, “I have to admit that normally being in large crowds is difficult for me; I tend to get claustrophobic. But I went to Meron on Lag BaOmer three times. I simply felt myself drawn there, by the tremendous energy, the unparalleled achdus and simchah.”
Thousands of visitors plan to stay over Shabbos in Meron, and the “Eruvin Center of Eretz HaKodesh” informed the public that Eruvim in the vicinity under its supervision can be relied upon without reservation, including: Ohr Haganuz, Bar Yochai, Safsufa, Dalton, Kerem ben Zimra, Alma, Kfar Shammai, Shefer, Frud, Tzefas, Teveria. In addition, from Ohr Haganuz and Bar Yochai it is permitted to walk and carry to Meron on Shabbos; from Safsufa to Meron one may walk but not carry. The efforts of Rav Moshe Berlin played a major role in ensuring that there were kosher eruvim.
Hundreds of people who use wheelchairs, the elderly and sick also arrived in Meron to participate in the celebration, as every year, under the auspices of Ezer MiTzion, in cooperation with event coordinator Rabbi Zev Freund and the National Center for Holy Sites and their staffs.
Forty children with serious illnesses were brought to Meron by Lev Malka in its fleet of ambulances, at no cost to their families.