The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic. People like to gather in large crowds once in a while. Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore). In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins. It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings. Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time. To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week. Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers. Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.
A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic. Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results. I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews. Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy. No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals. One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected. Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.
Stampedes are an evolved flight response. Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run. Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in. Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people. Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all. Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings. I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying. The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person. In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm. You take your hat off in church. You sit quietly, reverently, in church. You do not use coarse language in church. In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs. When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature. Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration. We mourn those who fall victim to it.