israel · sermon · story

The holiness of Mount Meron

I want to talk about what it takes to make a space sacred. 

And I want to consider what it would take to desecrate a sacred space.

There is a cave on Mount Meron. It is not just any cave. It is a pilgrimage site whose reputation and mystery has grown over the centuries.

And this is the place where, on Thursday night, thousands were trampled in celebrations of Lag BaOmer. 

In this cave, two of Judaism’s greatest sages are said to be buried: Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, abbreviated to Rashbi, a tanna in 2nd Century Yavne, and his son, Elazar ben Shimeon. 

Rashbi was a rebel against Rome. He criticised the imperial regime to his fellow rabbis. His colleague, Rabbi Yehudah, went straight to the Roman authorities and snitched on him. The Romans immediately promoted Yehudah and put out a bounty to kill Rashbi.

And that was how Rashbi and his son first wound up in a cave. The Talmud, written around five centuries later, says that this was a site of great miracles. There, in that grotto, a carob tree sprouted so that the two would always be able to eat. A well of water sprung out from the ground so they would always be able to drink. 

Every hour of the day, Rashbi and his son sat in the sand, buried up to their necks, hiding and studying Torah. They prayed and learned their traditions. After twelve years, the prophet Elijah, known for visiting pious sages, came to the cavern’s entrance and told the rabbis that the emperor had died and they were free. 

But during those twelve years of religious study, Rashbi had acquired knowledge and power far beyond what he previously knew. He went out into the world and looked upon it. 

Everywhere he went, he saw sin. Wherever he laid his eyes, Rashbi shot fiery lasers that destroyed everything in sight. God called out from the Heavens that he had better get back inside the cave. He stayed again for another twelve years. 

Finally, he came out from the cave and was able to participate in the world. 

Many years later, Rashbi died on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot. He was buried in a cave on Mount Meron. 

That was the beginning of the sanctification of the cave. 

No sources say that the cave where Rashbi and his son experienced miracles was the same as the one where they were laid to rest. It takes imagination to make the connection.

Such imaginative storytelling spurred on the legend of the cave. In 13th Century Guadalajara, in northern Spain, a mystic named Rabbi Moshe de Leon published and sold a mysterious new book. He claimed it contained the secrets of the universe itself. This book was called the Zohar. 

The text, said de Leon, had been written by Rashbi, a thousand years previously. He promoted a story: during Rashbi’s legendary time in that cave, he was not just a witness to miracles. He received a divine revelation. 

God disclosed to him hidden meanings of the Torah. These teachings, encapsulated in the Zohar, were the foundation of an esoteric practice that we now call Kabbalah.

Over the course of centuries, such Jewish mysticism would gain ever greater traction. Disciples of Kabbalah spread, and so did the myth of the cave. As the story grew, the cave became even more holy and potent. 

Three hundred years later, Kabbalah had become a movement. In the Galilee region of northern Eretz Yisrael, students of Yitzhak Luria and other great mystics assembled to learn these special teachings. They developed their own liturgy and renewed Jewish theology. They also initiated pilgrimages to sacred sites, including the tomb in the cave on Mount Meron.

In the subsequent centuries, the movement of Chassidism in Eastern Europe came to preach the importance of kabbalah. They popularised folk stories, promoted ecstatic singing and taught that there were certain special rebbes – charismatic leaders that pious Jews should follow. 

They called these legendary leaders ‘tzaddikim’ – righteous ones, and considered Rashbi a prime example. They believed that praying by the tomb of a tzaddik would make God more likely to hear them.  So, even in the 18th Century, when travel was difficult, Chassidim voyaged across Europe to visit Rashbi’s shrine.

Now, for more than 200 years, this cave has been a prime site for Orthodox Jews to attend and worship. In particular, on Lag BaOmer, Rashbi’s yahrzeit, the place fills up with people. In the preceding days, people camp across the mountain. 

On Lag BaOmer itself, fires are lit, songs are sung and people come to celebrate from all around the world. The stories that have made the cave sacred are retold.

That was what it took to turn this cave into a sacred place. Miracles. Legends. Imagination. Revelation. Pilgrimages spanning centuries. Millennia of development of Jewish tradition. 

Mostly, the cave has been sanctified by storytelling. 

For the purposes of storytelling, it does not matter whether Rashbi was really granted miracles. It is of no importance whether the caves were the same. 

It is even less significant whether Moshe de Leon inherited the Zohar from that ancient sage or made the whole thing up himself. What matters is the story. The Jews have turned this into a holy space by how engaging with it.

But that engagement has not been entirely for good and not every story is positive. Now comes the story of the disaster.

In 1911, just over a century ago, a catastrophe struck the cave. The roof above Rashbi’s shrine collapsed, killing 11 people and injuring many more. At the time, campaigners called for health and safety regulations to be implemented so that no such catastrophe could occur again. Their warnings were not heeded.

Rabbi Mark Solomon, one of our senior teachers at Leo Baeck College, recalls attending the pilgrimage in 1983. Even then, he said, “the crowd was so intense that I was sure I was going to be crushed to death. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.” 

In the years since, the number of attendees has only grown. But, despite appeals to the government, no health and safety measures have been added. This year, with so little planning due to Covid, there were even fewer arrangements to keep people safe.

And so, on Thursday night, catastrophe struck. People were trapped in a tight space with no crowd control. They panicked. A crush ensued. People threw themselves over each other. Hundreds are in hospital or seriously injured. 44 people were killed, among them little children.

Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, immediately spoke out. Like thousands of Jews, he had to check that members of his own family were not numbered among the dead. 

“We could have prevented this,” he said. He insisted this was not a natural event like plague or fire, but something in which human beings had colluded. He has called for an immediate inquiry.

And that, I believe, is where the question of whether a site can be made from holy to profane begins. It begins with what story we tell next.

Mount Meron is a sacred site because it is imbued with spiritual stories. We cannot allow those stories to be replaced with memories of whitewash and cover-up. People must take responsibility and there must be changes so that nothing like this happens again. 

We know from experience in Britain that the only way to heal from a tragedy is through honesty, transparency and change. We learnt this far too late from the Hillsborough Disaster and still have not seen those lessons learnt with Grenfell. When officials refuse to accept liability and instigate changes, all that remains on the sites where disaster happens is the trauma of failure.

If a site can take centuries to make sacred, it can be desecrated in an instant. 

Let us pray, then, that the government, officials and religious leaders engage in serious introspection. Let us pray that real changes are made to prevent repetitions of such disasters. Above all, let us pray for recovery for the injured and the memories of the dead. May their memories be for a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon · theology

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. The Tabernacle was built according to the dimensions of the world. And the world was built according to the dimensions of Heaven.[1] This is what the Zohar, our mystical text tells us.[2] What does this mean?

This week’s parashah describes the raw materials of the Tent of Meeting: blue, purple, and crimson yarns; the ephod made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs.[3] The Torah tells us precise measurements for precious metals: 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold; 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver.[4]

In the kabbalistic system of the Zohar, these are not only the dimensions of our Tabernacle, but a blueprint for the universe and a mirror of Heaven. Is this, then, the makeup of the universe? Does it, too, have crimson yarn and twisted linen and talents of silver?

No. That is not the nature of this text. The Zohar is not an Ikea assemblage manual, but a work of Jewish mysticism. Its concern isn’t with the physical arrangement of the world, but with the esoteric secrets underpinning it.

The Zohar was compiled as a commentary on the Torah in 13th Century Spain by Rabbi Moses de Leon and has circle.[5] This text became the central canonical text of Jewish mystical theology, known commonly as kabbalah.

Only within the terms of the text itself can we understand how the Tabernacle had the dimensions of the world and the world had the dimensions of Heaven. First of all, please understand that, by Heaven, it does not mean the cartoon of clouds in the sky where baby-angels play on harps. Nor is it talking about the afterlife. In this context, Heaven is the ‘Upper World’: the place beyond our understanding where God lives. It is not so much a physical space as it is a ‘divine realm’.

The dimensions of Heaven, then, were not physical, but were divine qualities. The Zohar notices a connection between the qualities with which the Tabernacle’s architect was endowed and the qualities God employed to create the world. God appoints a man named Bezalel ben Uri to oversee the creation of the Tabernacle. God tells Moses: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge.”[6] Elsewhere, in the book of Proverbs, we learn: “The Holy One founded the earth by wisdom; God established the heavens by understanding; through God’s knowledge the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew.”[7]

These, then, are the dimensions that the world and the Tabernacle held in common: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The qualities needed to create the world were the same as those needed to create the Tabernacle.

In the context of the Zohar, however, these terms take on an even deeper significance. In this world of mysticism, wisdom, understanding and knowledge are not simply creative faculties, but are part of a divine reality beyond what we can see.[8]

In this view of the world, there is an aspect of God called the ‘ein sof’ – that which is without end; the part of God that is limitless and incomprehensible. From this Infinite Unknowability flow ten sefirot, attributes of God’s self. They filter down into the knowable universe, to the level of the Shechinah – God’s dwelling-place in the human realm.[9]

At the highest levels are three sefirotketer – literally meaning ‘crown’, but fundamentally associated with God’s infinite knowledge; chochmah, meaning ‘wisdom’, which holds the archetypes of all things that must come into being; and binah – ‘understanding’ – in which is held the undifferentiated model of creation.[10] Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding: these are the highest rungs of the emanations of God’s presence. These are the qualities with which Proverbs tell us God created the world. These are the qualities with which Exodus tells us Bezalel ben Uri was endowed when he came to create the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle, then, was not a physical blueprint of the universe, but a spiritual one. It was comprised of the same mystical dimensions that also went into creating the world. Each of these was some part of God’s creative power. Through these, God’s creative power is manifest in Heaven, the world and the Tabernacle. They are acting as a form of creative power, transcending space and yet utterly active in it. Through this analogy, we understand that the world, Heaven and the Tabernacle are not just created, but are constantly creating, and being created.

That may all sound very difficult to understand, but it has significant implications for us. If the Tabernacle, the world and Heaven share a common creative blueprint, then what was done in the Tabernacle was replicated in Heaven. Thus, the Zohar tells us: “The Temple [the successor to the Tabernacle] was an abode of peace for the worlds […] so that the actions below could be united on the model of the world above.”[11] What they made true in the Temple, God made true in Heaven.

From this, the Zohar makes an even more audacious claim. It tells us that, in Heaven, God studies new interpretations of the sacrifices in the name of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai. It tells us that, even though God does not need to eat or drink, out of love for the Jewish people, God eats and drinks with us in Heaven.[12] Because of the deep connection between this world and the world above, God is able even to suspend the laws of the universe to replicate what we do on Earth.

What does this mean then for us, modern Jews, for whom the synagogue has permanently replaced the Temple? I would like to think that, just as the Temple was once a mirror of Heaven, our houses of meeting are today, too. When we gather together in community, some profound unity is recreated in Heaven. When we sing in unison on Shabbat mornings, new blessings and prayers are created in the World Above. When we read about the dimensions of the Tabernacle in this week’s Torah portion, those creative faculties that once created the world are the Temple are put into action once more and, through them, entire new worlds are made possible.

Sometimes it is easy to feel like our actions have no impact. The Zohar gives me hope. If what we do on Earth is replicated in Heaven, our actions cannot fail to be meaningful. When, here, we strive for a better world, that same campaign ignites in the upper echelons of the universe. When, here, we celebrate love, birthdays and the lives of our congregants, the Heavenly hosts are brought closer together in solidarity with us. Our kindness, our optimism, our compassion in this world are mirrored on a cosmic level.

The teachings of the Zohar may be complex, but their result is simple: We live in a world that shares its dimensions with Heaven. We are tasked with the spiritual health of the entire universe.

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. So let us strive to create Heaven on Earth.

Shabbat shalom.

Kabbalah_Art_-_Diamond_Painting_Kit_grande
Kabbalistic art

I first wrote this sermon as an essay for a class at Leo Baeck College on Kabbalah. I adapted it for use and delivered it at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue on 7th March 2020.

[1] Zohar II, 220b-221a

[2] I have relied for translations and interpretation on Tishby, Isaiah. The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (Vol III), trans. David Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 909-930

[3] Ex 39:1-3

[4] Ex 38:27-28

[5] Scholem, Gershom G. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Shocken Books, 1946), pp. 156-159

[6] Ex 31:2-3

[7] Prov 3:19-20

[8] Laenen, J. H. Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 46

[9] Laenen, pp. 46-48

[10] Laenen, pp. 48-49

[11] Zohar II 241a

[12] Zohar III, 241b