Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 21 May 2016 / 13 Iyyar 5776

Unity, Respect and the Students of Rabbi Akiva

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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During sefirat ha’omer, twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim passed away. Therefore, there is a custom to observe certain laws of mourning, like refraining from getting married and from cutting one’s hair (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 493:1). The Gemara explains that these students passed away because they did not give proper kavod, honor, to each other (Yevamot 62b). This idea, however, is hard to understand. How could such incredible people and “gedolei Yisrael” falter on such a fundamental concept? In addition, why was it specifically during the time between Pesach and Shavuot that this decree was passed on them? Finally, what practical lesson is there for us to learn from this tragic incident?

The Shem M’Shmuel explains that a person comes to respect another because he sees in him a certain strength that he himself lacks. Since the other is superior to him in at least one aspect, he comes to respect him. This world is composed of many different facets, so it should not be difficult for one to respect his friends, as there is at least one feature in which another is greater than him. However, this only holds true as long as each person is seen as an individual. If there is a feeling of unity to such an extent that people fail to view one another as individuals, then the ability to respect the other also diminishes. In such a situation, it is no longer relevant to respect another for something for which he is superior, since, as a unit, everyone has a share in everyone’s unique abilities. Just as the human body functions as one cohesive unit and the left hand does not “praise” the right hand for the right hand’s strengths, so too, when there is such an intense feeling of achdut, unity, it may also be the cause for a weakening ability to give another the proper kavod.

Unity and the Receiving of the Torah

Describing the Jewish People’s arrival at Har Sinai to receive the Torah the verse says: And they traveled from Refidim and they came to the desert of Sinai and encamped in the desert; and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain (Shemot 19:2). The Kli Yakar points out that the word Refidim has the same letters as the Hebrew word for divisiveness (hafradah). Based on this we can read the above verse as “they left their divisiveness and came to the Sinai Desert”. Meaning, it was only when they left their divisiveness that they were able to go to Sinai to receive the Torah. This idea is also indicated by the fact that the Torah uses the word “vayichan”when describing how the Jewish People camped by Har Sinai before they received the Torah. Rashi explains that the Torah uses the singular form of the verb, “vayichan”, he camped, instead of “vayachanu”, they camped, to show the incredible feeling of unity they felt at the time. Echoing these ideas, the midrash says, “When they came to Har Sinai they became a unified group. At that time, G-d said that the time has come to give My children the Torah” (Eichah Rabbah, Pesicha 20). It follows from the above that unity is a major prerequisite for the receiving of the Torah.

Shavuot is the holiday in which we accepted the Torah. The time between Pesach and Shavuot is therefore meant to be used as a personal preparation period for the receiving of the Torah. Therefore, during this time Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim were most certainly working on themselves to become proper receptacles for G-d’s Torah. Since unity is such a fundamental principle for receiving the Torah, Rabbi Akiva’s students placed an extra-special emphasis on specifically building on their ability to express this feeling of unity. However, as a result of the intense focus on unity they began to lose sight of relating to each of their colleagues as individuals — and thus, their respect for each individual began to lessen. They saw just the greater whole, and stopped fully appreciating the unique individual contribution of every single person. Due to the lofty spiritual levels of these talmidim, this ever-so-slight expression of a lack of proper kavod for one’s friend was enough for G-d to exact judgment from them (based on Shem M’Shmuel, Emor 5672).

The commentaries explain that one reason for observing these laws of mourning during this time is to inspire us to work on our interactions with those around us (see Kaf Hachaim 493:5). This is the time to learn and study the laws that pertain to the interactions between friends, and prepare for “matan Torah”. As Chazal tell us, “Derech eretz kadmah la’Torah”, proper behavior precedes the giving of the Torah (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). While obviously a big component of this preparation is achdut and unity, one has to be careful not to allow this to be the cause for taking any individual’s unique contributions for granted. As the midrash says: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, “If Yisrael was lacking even one person, the Divine Presence would not have appeared to them” (Devarim Rabbah 7:8). This is especially true of giving proper kavod to those whom we are especially close with, such as one’s wife, parents, family members, close friends, chavruta, etc. We can not let the achdut we feel compromise the kavod that should be given as a result of appreciating their unique strengths. This is one practical lesson we can learn from the tragic loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

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