I woke up this morning at 4:15 to the sound of the muezzin’s call  to prayer, and knew I was in Jerusalem. Just a few seconds later the taped call of Allahu ‘akbar was echoed from a second minaret in the Old City, and then a third. My sister’s apartment is way outside those ancient walls, and still I heard the calls.

I lay in bed and immediately recalled our interfaith study of Zen koans some 21 years ago. Bernie led it from the top floor of the Ecce Homo Pilgrim House right on Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, the golden Dome of the Rock so close you felt you could touch it from the terrace outside.

In our first day there, someone said: “It’s noon, time for our moment of silence for peace.” Instead, dozens of cries to worship emerged from the surrounding mosques: “Allahu ‘akbar Allahu ‘akbar!” Hasten to the prayer, hasten to the salvation. Bernie sat back, a gleam in his eyes, and said: “Good. Let’s sit with that.” And we did every day that we were there.

This morning I thought of the many rising from bed and putting down prayer rugs, starting the day with prostrations. An unidentified bird began to sing, its warble long and complicated, as if warning me of the complexity of the day ahead.

I went back to sleep, and when I woke up a few hours later, my sister told me of the tragedy at Mt. Meron, when some 45 people were killed in a panic and stampede, with some 150 wounded, including children.

The evening before I sat in my mother’s apartment a few hours after landing at Tel Aviv Airport, along with her and my brother, and watched TV. We have a Hasidic side to our family, and our cousin is the rebbe who heads the Boyan Hasidim sect. By tradition, it is he who lights the first bonfire in the massive celebration at Mt. Meron, which commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai from the second century. Other Hasidic sects then take their turn in lighting a bonfire. Each such lighting is accompanied by song and dance by some 100,000 people.

“Make sure you see Dovi (our name for our cousin rebbe) on TV,” my brother told me as he left the apartment. There had been shots of his back as he prayed, waiting to inaugurate the big festivities. But we were on the road, so I missed it.

Shimon Bar-Yochai, buried in Meron, had to hide in a cave towards the end of his life for some 14 years, and is reputed to have written the Zohar, the key text of the Kabbalah. In actual fact, the Zohar was probably written a millennium later in Spain, but he is still celebrated for writing that text much as Shakyamuni Buddha is credited with authoring all the Buddhist sutras, including those written hundreds of years after his death.

Our cousin, the rebbe, was spared the catastrophe that unfolded at 1:00 am by virtue of being the first to light the bonfire, and after much dance and song by his Hasidim, leaving the site. But not so the others.

A national day of mourning has been declared for this coming Sunday, but accusations and recriminations are already surfacing and will come down in a deluge after Sunday: Who messed up? What regulations were in place—and what violations? Why is it that over a period of many years, warnings were issued again and again about what could happen and nothing was ever done?

While we watched TV last night, before the official lighting of the first bonfire, an orthodox television personality heavily promoted the magical quality of the evening and night. “Think of anything you want—a husband, a wife, a child, an end to sickness, a job, more money, whatever—and call this number,” he kept on telling viewers. “Tell the person who answers what you need, they will pray for you tonight and you will be granted any wish you have, no matter how large or small!” For a fee, of course.

Some wishes and prayers were answered, some not. And 45 people died (so far) along with many, many wounded. I think of the transactional nature of how many of us think of God—if I’m good, He will intervene and give me a good life. If I’m good, He will intervene on my behalf and make me special and favored, and I will find love, money, success, fame. Instead, hundreds of people witnessed or suffered the brutality of being trod underfoot, their bodies crushed, bones smashed.

If our relationship with God is not one of transaction, of you-do-this-and-I-do-that, you give this and I’ll pay You with that, what is it?

This morning, even with the grim news, the Lubavitch Hasidim drove in school buses all over town gathering children with bands and clowns and marching them down the streets to honor the holiday. I took the photo from the car as we drove past.

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