Why Does Devotion End in Tragedy?

The answers to life’s mysteries depend on asking the right questions.

Every morning, before dawn, the contest began.

It was over 2000 years ago, and the priests officiating in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple would race one another up the ramp to the altar, vying to claim the privilege of inaugurating the new day’s service.

In time, however, the practice was discontinued.  Why?  Because, in their zeal to serve, accidents multiplied and injuries proliferated.  The passion of the priests was admirable, but the cost was too high.  Eventually, the system was replaced by the more civil, albeit less exciting, drawing of lots.

This episode comes to mind after last week’s tragedy in Israel.  The annual gathering to commemorate the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the northern village of Meron is among the most poignant rituals of the year, honoring the legacy of one of Judaism’s most influential and enigmatic heroes.  This year, the zeal for celebration ended in catastrophe.


Rabbi Shimon is recognized for having brought into the world the light of kabbalah, the mystical teachings that reveal hidden insights to the most disciplined students of spiritual wisdom. Ironically, the most impenetrable mystery of all is the apparently random suffering of good people.

We can’t expect to find answers to explain every tragedy.  What we can do is look for lessons relevant to our own lives.

The sad reality is that the waters of religious fervor can easily overflow their bounds. In this case, one misplaced step set off a domino effect that claimed the lives of many innocents who wanted nothing more than to bring illumination from the spiritual past into the darkness of the bewildering present.

Does that mean the pilgrimage was too dangerous?  Not necessarily.

Every time we venture out the front door we take our lives into our hands.  Indeed, we’ve read too many headlines of good people killed by errant bullets as they sat in the presumed safety of their homes.  If we truly seek wisdom, enlightenment, and inspiration, sometimes we need to make a hazardous journey to find them.

It’s easy for secularists and “enlightened” thinkers to shake their heads, baffled by the religious passion that brought a hundred thousand believers together for an arcane festival.  But consider the religious practices of the modern secular world:  political rallies, sporting events, music concerts—all of which have been checkered by violence and chaos.  Popular culture teeters precariously on the edge of calamity when we let ourselves get carried away by ideological exuberance or inflamed fandom.


We have no control over the moment when our lives are taken from us, only what to do with the time we are afforded.  Are we to spend the hours and days of our lives distracting ourselves with idle pastimes, or are we to invest ourselves in the quest to acquire authentic wisdom?  Is it not better to count each day aspiring to spiritual ascension than count off our days by occupying them with trivial pursuits or vainglorious spectacles?

Nevertheless, the search for meaning need not take us to the mountain tops or to the depths of the sea.

It is possible that, in our yearning for internal awakening, we look far and wide to be inspired while overlooking the inspiration that resides closer to home.  What if we focused on the simple joys of daily life, the elemental pleasure of friends and family, the enduring rewards of a job well done?

Perhaps we would find that the quiet satisfaction of the ordinary is all we need to bring light to our lives.

A famous parable tells of the man who traveled across a continent only to discover that a treasure lay hidden beneath the floor of his house.  Sometimes we need to make the journey to find what we already have. But sometimes, by recognizing how much we truly have, we can save ourselves the journey.

Whether we travel to the ends of the earth or never leave our kitchen table, it is ultimately the pilgrimage into the depths of our own hearts that will produce the most profound enlightenment and the richest rewards.

Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with leaders to create a culture of ethics that builds trust, sparks initiative, and drives productivity. He is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC, a keynote speaker, and TEDx presenter, community rabbi, repentant hitchhiker, recovered world traveler, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher in St. Louis. He’s the author of hundreds of articles applying ancient rabbinic wisdom to the challenges of the modern world and six books including “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.”


  1. You, dear Yonason, are armed with a dangerous pen Your words are powerful and moving. Thank you for sharing this incredible article with us. I loved this: “What if we focused on the simple joys of daily life, the elemental pleasure of friends and family, the enduring rewards of a job well done?” And the last line–loaded with punch, too! Bravo–hat’s off!

  2. The word coming up for me is Group madness. But not in the negative meaning. “Madness” can be defined as when a person is no longer themself. So I think your parallel to concerts and ball games is very apt: we yearn to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and whether it is a gathering to commemorate the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or Burning Man is mainly a question of taste and conviction.

  3. What a great article. I applaud people who have found their meaning and joy by living their life. My father was this way. He spend his entire life living in a three block radius. He was the most positive and content person I ever met even though we lived below the poverty line a good portion of my childhood. To watch my father, we never knew we were what the world considered “poor.” He was always positive and often said, every experience has something of value we can take forward. I wish I had been more like him earlier in my life.