Lag Ba'omer 5773: From Yerushalayim To Meron
By Y. Koppel
I have now been in Eretz Yisroel for close to 11 years, and one way or another, I have had the zechus to spend part of Lag Ba’omer at the kever of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron for the last 11 years. Each year has its own flavor and this year will definitely be amongst the most memorable ones.
On Thursday, reports from Meron described the anticipation in the air as the finishing touches were made to all the hachnosas orchim tents and final preparations were arranged to accommodate the more than 10,000 people who would be coming to spend Shabbos in Meron.
One of my children enjoyed a beautiful and inspiring Shabbos in Meron hosted by her husband’s grandparents. The Shabbos visitors who came as groups with their rebbes, kehillos, families and friends describe a wonderful atmosphere, with tefillos andzemiros all over the Meron area and very efficiently runseudos. There was very easy access to the kever at all times, and the sounds of the davening, singing and dancing reverberated throughout the area. It was a tremendous display of achdus and chessed among Yidden.
Lag Ba’omerin Eretz Yisroel is really like a Yom Tov. As overseas guests filled the streets and stores ahead of Lag Ba’omer, there was an Erev Yom Tov atmosphere in the air, with many people preparing to entertain guests for Shabbos.
We had a full house. After a wonderful Shabbos, we all went out to participate in the events inYerushalayim Ihr Hakodesh. The music and bonfires began not long after Shabbos ended.
I started my rounds at our neighborhood hadlakah, with its family atmosphere, as fathers danced in the street with their children to live music.
I then went down to Belz, where the hadlakah was on a different side of the imposing bais medrashi, as preparations are already underway for the upcomingchasunah after Shavuos. Orange flames soared into the sky against the backdrop of the majestic white building. The singing, led by renowned baal menagein Reb Yirmiyahu Damen, accompanied by an orchestra, penetrated my neshamah.
I stood next to a railing at the entrance of one of the residential buildings on Binas Yissochor facing the orchestra. Above to my left, I had a perfect view of the Rebbe, who stood flanked by his family and chashuvei ziknei Belz on the porch overlooking the crowds.
The plaza in front of the bais medrash was full of dancing circles, spilling over to the side streets. Reb Yirmiyahu slowed down: "Toraso yagein aleinu, hi me’iras eineinu, yamlitz tov badeinu, adoneinu bar Yochai…."
The woman next to me who had come from New York for Lag Ba’omer had tears streaming down her face. The music and the dancing under the full moon were simply intoxicating.
Two more tourists came to our relatively quiet spot and wanted to look up at the Rebbe. They made it in the nick of time, because within seconds the Rebbe went inside and the music began to wind down.
As we filed out of Belz, the streets were already swarming with people who were converging on the square of Belz, which was the main departure bus terminal for Egged buses to Meron. Earlier, I had seen a whole group of blue-shirted drivers and supervisors pose for photographers.
In order to preserve shemiras Shabbos, the first buses were scheduled to depart at 10 p.m., well after Shabbos was over. Passengers poured into the area to take their pre-booked assigned seats at the respective times indicated on their tickets on the clearly marked buses. My daughter’s ticket was for 11 p.m. She arrived in Meron at around 2.30 a.m. with no delays.
The Gerrer cheder uses the Bais Malka premises across from Boyan for their hadlakah, attended by parents and siblings. The children were all active participants, singing in the choir and dancing with their rabbeim and fathers to the live music. They all enjoyed the refreshments and ices, and when the dancing stopped, the boys all helped clean up and collect the garbage.
It was at about midnight when I stepped into the main Boyaner bais medrash, where there was a giant screen set up with a live feed of the Boyaner hadlakah already underway in Meron.
The Boyaner Rebbe and his chassidim spent Shabbos together in Meron and the women were able to watch the hadlakah from Yerushalayim. Last year, I was at the hadlakah, perched on a platform right next to the camera crew. Now I joined the thousands of spectators who were able to experience the atmosphere from afar. The Rebbe looked majestic as he stood regally way above the crowds, singing and clapping to the music as literally tens of thousands sang and danced below. It was malchusdig. The olami, in theirbigdei Shabbos and shtreimels, seemed oblivious to the intense heat, which was already a factor. Water was being distributed. The Rebbe intermittently paused to welcome rabbonim, dignitaries and visiting VIPs who were escorted to the Rebbe’s podium or to give a bracha to young boys who were having their upsherins.
One man was walking around, scissors in hand, with his young son in his arms. Every time he saw a gadol baTorah, a rov or a rebbe, he handed him the scissors to cut a piece of his son’s hair.
The Boyaner Rebbe, who arrived in Meron on Thursday, returned to Yerushalayim on Friday morning for the levaya of Rav Moshe Zev Feuerstein zt"l, one of his closest chassidim who served as the administrator of Mesivta Tiferes Yisroel of Rizhin. A rebbi for many years, he devoted his life to the mosdos of Boyan/Rizhin and consistently maintained the Rizhin presence in the kloiz near his home on the East Side of Manhattan. I feel a personal connection, because Reb Moshe Zev was a fifth grade melamed at Yeshivas Ohr Yisroel in Queens and my husband had the zechus to be in his class for fifth grade. He vividly recalls to this day Rav Moshe Zev’s enthusiasm as a rebbi. My husband remembers specific pieces of Gemara and Chumash that he learned from him and which he taught in a unique fashion. Following the levaya, the Boyaner Rebbe traveled back to Meron for Shabbos.
The Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe spent Shabbos in Meron with his Chassidim. On Motzoei Shabbos, after Havdalah, the Rebbe held a tish and a small hadlakah. At 2:30 a.m., his oldest son led the main hadlakah of Karlin, which attracts thousands of people of all types who sang and danced with the chassdim. Whereas Boyanismalchusdig, in Karlin the energy of the dancing to the rhythm of the amplified music is so powerful that the mountain shakes.
Throughout Lag Ba’omer, both night and day, there were simultaneous hadlakos in every available spot of Meron, all coordinated and assigned in advance. Sassov, Rav Kenig from Tzefas, Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok, and Chief Rabbi Rav Shlomo Amar were among those who held major gatherings. Rav Yaakov Hilleldavened kevosikin at the Yeshiva Hamekubalim of Rashbi.
Rav Binyomin Eisenberger of Boro Park led a group of close to 200 people who came from America, including members of his kehillah, talmidim and baalei batim. After spending a few days in Yerushalayim, culminating in a Thursday night trip to the Kosel where the regular mispallelim enjoyed the beautiful dveikusdige singing, they went to Tzefas for Shabbos and then continued on to Meron on Lag Ba’omer.
Just as Har Meron shakes all night with the simcha of the hillulah of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, Yerushalayim is the center for many hadlakos which continue until the early hours of the morning. Dushinsky, Toldos Aharon and Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok all have major hadlakos near their botei medrash.
Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter’s hadlakah in Yerushalayim was another favorite, especially for people who came from overseas. My nephew enjoyed the intimate atmosphere in the spacious Yerushalayim setting, which included all the inspiring elements he experienced the following day in Meron in less physically taxing conditions.
The Rachmastrivka Rebbe’s hadlakah began at 2 a.m. in the Gush 80 park near the Givas Moshe bais medrash, and the music and dancing continued until after 4 a.m.
It was as much about the trip to and from Meron as the time spent there. One son-in-law left Yerushalayim by car at 1 a.m.on Motzei Shabbos and arrived back home by 8 o’clock on Sunday morning. Three sons left by car from Bnei Brak at 9 a.m. They had very smooth shuttle bus service back and forth between the parking lot and the kever and were back in Bnei Brak earlier than expected, in time to attend a simcha in the afternoon. Totally oblivious to the difficulties others experienced coming and going, one son summed up his trip to Meron as "Gevaldig!"
My niece, who spent Shabbos with her seminary in Tzefas, was in Meron by 9:45 p.m. on Motzoei Shabbos and left at 2:30 a.m. after a wonderful experience. She said that everything went so smoothly and she wasn’t exposed to any of the less positive aspects.
My neighbor enjoyed a beautiful Shabbos in Teverya and arrived in Meron in time for the Boyanerhadlakah. She returned home ecstatic from her first Lag Ba’omer in Meron. Nevertheless, not everyone had such a smooth trip due to huge logistical challenges (see sidebar).
Walking up to the kever when we arrived in Meron on Sunday afternoon, the first person I saw among the crowds was my daughter-in-law from Bnei Brak. It was amazing how I met two of mymechutanim, a friend who had told me she was coming for an upsherin and several of my neighbors on my way to the kever.
As they arrived at the kever, the many New Yorkers there were greeted with a touch of home. There were large signs prominently displayed announcing that the Melohn families were sponsors of Hatzolah in memory of their late mother. Unable to be present in person, they participated in spirit.
I always say that Meron on Lag Ba’omer is not for the faint-hearted. It takes a lot of resilience to negotiate the crowds. You need a lot of stamina. I continued to the kever, passing many familiar faces. I allowed myself to inhale the kedushah that is so palpable at the tziyun of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.
I started davening Minchah buoyed by the contagious intensity andkavanah of those around me. Everyone was focused on their tefillos oblivious to the ebb and flow of the crowd. All of a sudden, the person behind me began crying into her siddur. I could hear each and every word of the woman right next to me. The collective tefillos inside theme’arah were directed heavenward during this eis ratzon fromPesach Sheini through Lag Ba’omer.
One of my neighbors had managed to perch herself on a ledge inside the archway. She had come at a moment’s notice with a friend for the first time to Meron and later told me that she sat there for hours and davened. She was so inspired by the magnetic pull and energy of the tefillas rabim, with the simultaneous background music of the pizmonim in the adjoining outside area. She realizes that people spend time and money planning the logistics to make a trip from their homes in America to spend Lag Ba’omer in Meron and she lives right here. With a gleam in her eye, she savors the memories of this most worthwhile trip.
When I heard the distinctive sounds of the Toldos Aharonorchestra, I inched my way towards the exit and slowly made my way up the steep steps as I tired to position myself for thehadlakah. It was just before shekiah and still light outside.
The whole area was crowded beyond capacity, as everyone looked on in anticipation, quickly adapting to the mood as the band played the Rav’s Niggun.
The music stopped. You could hear a pin drop as the Rebbe emotionally addressed the tremendous crowd, his voice echoing over the surrounding mountains. His message was to utilize this tremendous eis ratzon, to pour out our hearts with our individual tefillos and our tefillos on behalf of the klal. He gave brachos for nachas from the kinder andgezunt. Shifchi kamayim libeich… All the gezeiros should be nullified. May we be zocheh to doros yesharim and be zocheh to Moshiach Tzidkeinu and the geulah sheleimah.
The Rebbe then said Tehillim 130, Shir Hamaalos Mimaamakim.
As the Rebbe finished, the orchestra played Koh Echsof,setting the tone for the imminent climax of the hadlakah. The Rebbe held the torch, and as the spark was ignited, orange flames filled the air, soaring upward. The music picked up speed and everyone broke out into spontaneous singing and dancing led by the Rebbe and accompanied by the orchestra and singers on the stage. It was breathtaking. Many of the police officers and security guards standing throughout the crowd were moved by the powerful magnetic force of these elevated moments and could be seen reaching for their yarmulkas and Tehillims, so inspired were they by the intense atmosphere.
The spontaneous outpouring of emotion continued as the vocalist sang the slow, heartrending tunes of "Tzama lecha nafshi"and "Ani ma’amin be’emunah sheleimah bevias haMoshiach."All eyes focused in the direction of the Rebbe.
The singing and dancing continued, with old and young alike participating.
Some of the men standing on the rooftops and balconies way above raised their outstretched hands upwards towards. The whole mountainside was jumping, every individual swept up in the joy.
The tempo then slowed down - Ana Hashem hatzlicha na. I could see a group of American baalei batim on the roof.Thegroup in front of me linked arms and swayed. Hodu laHashem ki tov… Vechol ma’aminim shehu levado hamamlich melochim velo hameluchah. Despite the overall crush, there was an incredible intensity of tefillos, each individual in their vinkel, making the most of each precious moment.
I made my way out of this area and went on top of the kever. I had easy access to the waterlogged area of the bonfire on top of the kever lit the previous night by the Boyaner Rebbe. It was still burning, monitored by firemen, as people continued to pour on oil. I davened in this relatively quiet spot.
LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES MAR MERON EXPERIENCE FOR SOME
All the planning for all eventualities that I wrote about last week just did not materialize. Egged seems to be taking the brunt of the complaints, but the police are also being criticized for not diverting traffic to the more remote parking lots in Meron earlier. In all honesty, there is enough blame to go around, including to the tens of thousands of people who came in private cars instead of using public transportation as they were asked to do. They may have had a smoother trip in and out, but they caused a tremendous problem for others.
Meron is the most popular site in Eretz Yisroel after the Koseli, visited by 2 million people a year. The infrastructure, although prepared for large crowds, was pushed to its limits. The electricity supply was sometimes interrupted, overloaded by the constant demand for air conditioning, lighting and sound systems for all the music.
From the start, the public was urged to use mass transit, assured that it would be efficient. Egged, the leading provider of public transportation, even had advanced ticket sales with assigned seats and scheduled departure times.
The sheer volume and unprecedented steady stream of incoming crowds pouring into Meron on Motzoei Shabbos within a few hours precipitated what can only be described as havoc.
In a year when Lag Ba’omer falls on a weeknight, a very substantial part of the crowd arrives on Erev Lag Ba’omer and the early hours of the evening. Since this year it was Motzoei Shabbos, a huge crowd of hundreds of people came to Meron within a very condensed period of time. This huge influx of people arriving all at once started the problem, which got out of hand very quickly.
Early Sunday morning, reports were filtering in of a few minor accidents near Meron, which further backed up traffic. All this very quickly escalated into a total system failure in Meron, as the transportation system crashed and traffic in and out of Meron was at a total standstill.
Apparently, starting from two hours after Shabbos, thousands of people in private cars and buses poured into Meron at an unprecedented rate. By midnight, there were already 100,000 people in Meron. Later Motzoei Shabbosi, there were close to 300,000 people in Meron. (To give you a sense of what this mean, it is almost three times the number of people who came to the Siyum Hashas in Met Life Stadium - and there is no equivalent to the New Jersey Turnpike or NJ Transit trains near Meron.) The parking lots were already full and authorities had failed to foresee the catastrophic consequences that would occur by not diverting the private cars to outlying parking lots near Tzefas as soon as they realized that the volume was more than they could handle.
Shuttle buses from Tzefas and the surrounding resorts and towns in the north which were all filled to capacity over Shabbos, with guests heading to Meron for Lag Ba’omer, began operating right after Shabbos. Due to the unusually hot temperatures, many people who would have preferred to come to Meron the following day spontaneously changed their plans and arrived in Meron at night, avoiding the more intense heat of the blazing sunshine.
As traffic began to build up, access in and out of Meron was simply impossible. This affected relief shifts for Hatzolah and MDA, whose volunteers were arriving from throughout the country and were stuck in traffic like everyone else.
People who had spent Shabbos in Meron and attended the opening hadlakah were starting to disperse, planning to leave on the incoming buses, but as soon as the delays started, there were not enough incoming buses dropping off passengers available for trips out of Meron.
The crisis escalated when convoys of buses joined the mounting traffic and frustrated travelers were stuck in the standstill traffic for hours. The entire bus schedule was thrown off, and with no Plan B for this eventuality, it seemed that police and transportation representatives, particularly Egged, just tuned out for several hours, with no solution to the mounting problem.
It is well-known that the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh crawled up Har Meron on his hands and knees to the kever ofRabi Shimon bar Yochai. Many of the frustrated passengers, seeing no other option, just trudged up the hill. There was no alternative mode of transportation and the buses that were chugging up were doing so at a snail’s pace of 5 cm. every 10 minutes.
My younger daughter, who arrived at 2:30 a.m., spent several hours in Meron, davening Shacharis atnetz and arriving in the Egged parking lot for her return trip at 6:45 a.m. There were hundreds of people and no buses. Word got around that it was not likely that there would be any buses leaving for the next few hours. It was already sweltering and everyone was feeling the effects of the heat and exhaustion. There was a lot of achdus among the frustrated and tired crowds, as people shared their food and supplies and tried to humor each other.
Meanwhile, news had spread that there was a total collapse of operations and services in Meron. People throughout the country were urged not to leave home for Meron until the crisis was resolved. Politicians andaskanim were making urgent calls to come up with a plan to get things back on track.
At this point, the other authorized private bus companies that offered service to and from Meron were encountering delays, but passengers did not complain about them so much, because the staff members were courteous and helpful, answering their questions and doing their best to alleviate their distress. The staff remained in their positions and handed out drinks and refreshments.
Hatzolah had arranged for two trucks of bottled water to be delivered to the area. Somehow the trucks made it through and volunteers in every parking lot handed out the drinks, urging everyone to keep drinking to avoid dehydration.
In case you were not aware, next year, Lag Ba’omer also falls out on Motzoei Shabbos. I assure you that even larger crowds will make their way to Meron to daven and reenergize with the hashpa’os tovos, because when things don’t always go according to plan, we don’t give up. We go veiter. Amar Rabi Akiva: Ashreichem Yisroel.