YERUSHALAYIM – Monday evening at the Kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at Meron began a Lag BaOmer celebration that barely resembled those of the past.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government, acting on recommendations of the Health Ministry, banned the traditional huge crowds of hundreds of thousands and permitted only 50 persons with Admurim and Rabbanim representing different sectors of the religious community to participate in each of 3 bonfire lightings.

Police have thrown a cordon around the town of Meron to prevent anyone from coming to attend the lightings or stay at the rental apartments that are normally full at this time of year.

Rav Yosef Schwinger, director of the National Center for Mekomos Hakedoshim, spoke with Hamodia about Lag BaOmer under such conditions.

He said that there was “no question but that the right decision was made” to keep away the crowds. “No hadlakah is worth a single life. The sanctity of life is above all other considerations.

Rav Schwinger said he would particularly miss “the chalakos, where you sometimes see three or four generations of yidden together for the traditional chalaka, a picture of the continuity of the Klal Yisrael.”

As for those who protest and say that they have faith in Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, that he will protect us from coronavirus, Rav Schwinger said that their responsibility is to heed the directions of the authorities.

Has he himself witnessed yeshuos over the years that he’s been involved in organizing the Meron event?

“Yes, yes. Every year, dozens of childless couples daven for children, and they come back and tell me a year later that they have their first child.”

When we asked if he had any personal thoughts as to why the virus had come upon Klal Yisrael, he quoted the comment of Rav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rosh yeshiva of Ateres Yisrael:

“People ask: ‘Why is this happening to us? What does HaKadosh Baruch Hu want from us?’

“That is what He wants: To ask what He wants from us!”

Chaim Rabinowitz, an askan from Eretz Yisrael, told Hamodia that he found the situation “very painful, heartbreaking. It’s hard to look at this empty scene where hundreds of thousands would be here.”

But chareidi MKs, who understand what Lag BaOmer means, and wanted to allow people to come, after sitting down with the health professionals and listening to the risk assessments, agreed that the event could not be held as in former years.

When asked about the public reaction, he said that “people are not complaining. They understand this.”

He told a story, though, about one very wealthy person who flies in from abroad every year to be at Meron. “But this year, he said, he tried everything but there was no way to be allowed to come.

“Money always works, but not this time, he said. He offered to fly in his own private plane, come to Meron sheathed in plastic, just for the lighting, and then immediately turn around and fly back. Not possible.”

As for himself, Chaim Rabinowitz said he did not intend to be at Meron for the lighting, even though he could easily obtain permission for himself and his family. “I just can’t come,” he said. “Not when so many yidden are sitting at home broken-hearted because they can’t come to Meron.”

He added that several chareidi MKs who could also get entry permits had decided not to come for the same reason.

However, MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) explained on Monday afternoon his decision to avail himself of the opportunity to be at the Kever of Rabbi Shimon on Lag BaOmer:

“What the Almighty is to all, Rabbi Shimon also is to all. Especially during a difficult year like this, when a decree was ordered for Jews to come to Rashbi’s tomb to ask for salvation, it is the duty of everyone who is allowed to do so to come and pray, and beg on behalf of all for salvation and consolation,” Eichler was quoted by Arutz Sheva as saying.

He added though: “At first I thought I would not ascend to Meron this year. But I felt obligated to come and pray with devotion as a public envoy for the tens of thousands of Jews who were unable to make it.”