Sefirah: The Students of Rebbe Akiva

hero image

S’firah as a time of mourning

“Rebbe Akiva had 24,000 students from Givas to Antipras. All of them died in one time period because they didn’t treat each other with kavod. That time period was between Pesach and Shavuos.” (Yevamos 62b)

With these words, the Gemarah explains why S’firah, a joyful time when we prepare for the acceptance of the Torah, has taken on an aspect of mourning and repentance. We mourn over the loss of such a great legion of Torah scholars, and we repent because if this is what befell such great people, where does it leave us? If they were guilty of not treating their friends with the proper respect, what are we to say?

However, this statement of the Gemarah is difficult to understand. How is it possible that the students of Rebbe Akiva didn’t treat each other with honor? Isn’t that basic practice of a talmid chacham? These people were towering giants, steeped in Torah study and observance. How is it imaginable that they neglected such a basic tenet as treating their friends properly?

This question becomes far more problematic when we focus on who their Rebbe was, and what he stood for. Rebbe Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself; that is a great principle of the Torah” (Toras Kohanim). Rebbe Akiva’s shita was that the concept of “love your neighbor” is the dominant theme that runs through all of the mitzvahs — not an addendum to the Torah, not a nicety to enhance one’s avodas HASHEM, rather  the essence of the entire Torah. Clearly, this wasn’t something that Rebbe Akiva sort of mentioned once a year in passing. It was something that he regularly taught and expanded upon. Most likely, he gave shiurim in it. There must have been Mussar Va’adim, focus groups… How then is it possible that his own talmidim could have failed so abysmally in this very area?

Second degree black belt moshol

The answer to this lies in understanding a moshol:

Imagine that you are at a karate tournament when you overhear a group of contestants talking about another fighter. “That guy! He can’t fight his way out of wet paper bag.” Then, you look over and see that “that guy” is a black belt! He has trained in martial arts for many years. His hands should be registered with the Police Department as lethal weapons. Yet they hold him in utter disregard. How could this be?

Then you realize that they are second degree black belts, and he is only a first degree. The difference in their fighting skills is vast, and that is the issue. They aren’t judging him based on an objective standard; they are comparing him to their level. Compared to an untrained individual, he may well be a lethal killer, but compared to a second degree black belt, he isn’t very threatening. Because they are comparing him to their status, he doesn’t rank and isn’t considered worthy.

Rebbe Akiva’s students were Gadolim

This seems to be the answer to this question. The Maharsha explains that the students of Rebbe Akiva didn’t treat each other with the Kavod Ha’Torah due to their friends. Nowhere are they accused of being nasty or rude. We aren’t told that they didn’t practice chessed. No doubt, they acted with great kindness to each other, and as the students of Rebbe Akiva, they practiced great sensitivity. Most likely they treated each other with great kavod, far more than we treat our friends. But that was the problem. Their friends weren’t our friends. Their friends were Torah giants. Because they lived in an enclave of talmidei chachamim, it wasn’t enough that they treated each other nicely and politely. They were obligated to treat one another with all of the deference and honor due to one who holds up the entire world. And in that sense they were lacking. They treated their friends as very good friends, on some level forgetting that their very good friends were also Gadolim. When your friend is a Gadol B’ Torah, it isn’t good enough to treat him as a dear friend. You must treat him with the honor due to a great man. And it seems that on some level, they were lacking in that.

Since they were the ones who were to be the link in the chain from Sinai handing down the Mesorah, that lack of true Kavod HaTorah would have tainted the transmission, and they could not be the ones to hand over the Torah to the next generation. That role had to be given to others.

This concept is very relevant to us on many levels. Firstly, it shows us the purity of our mesorah. Throughout thousands of years of exile, the very same Torah, with the very same priorities, intentions, and practices has been handed down from generation to generation unchanged because any deviation has to be eliminated.

More directly, this issue relates to us in the way that we act towards others. We live in an egalitarian society — everyone is equal. While this has allowed us, as Jews, great freedom, we are obligated to recognize that not everyone occupies the same station in life. If a person is a Rov, Posek, or Rebbe then it is incumbent upon me to treat him with the highest degree of respect — even if I am his equal. Even if I have mastered as much Torah as he has, even if I am as fluent in Shas, since he occupies a position of a Torah leader, I must treat him with all the honor due to a talmid chacham. My personal madreigah doesn’t allow me to treat him with less honor. Quite the opposite, the more learned I am, the more I am obligated to act in the ways of the Torah, which is to respect those who have acquired greatness.

We are all black belts

But even more pointedly, let’s imagine for a moment that I am more advanced in learning that my friend or neighbor. Does that obviate my obligation to treat him with respect? At the end of the day, a Jew who has learned one posuk of Chumash is a member of an elite nation and should be held in high accord. By dint of being a Jew, that person is worthy of great respect. My being zocheh to more Torah knowledge doesn’t take away my obligation to honor you as a member of the holy nation, a beloved child of HASHEM. Quite the opposite, since I know more, I understand with even greater clarity that true honor is due for a person’s closeness to HASHEM, that any Jew is considered a son of HASHEM, and that all Jews are therefore worthy of more honor that we can imagine.

Make every day count! Sign up for the OU Daily Sefirah Reminder Email.