By Rabbi Dovid Markel
The Talmud (Yevamot 62a) tells us of the 12,000 pairs of students that died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot:
“Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.”
In various places (Likutei Sichot, 7:342-343, Likutei Sichot, 22:139ff) the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out a certain irony in the fact that it was specifically R. Akiva’s students that were unable to properly respect one another.
It was R. Akiva who famously stated (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim Ch. 9, Sifra, Vayikra 19:18) that “loving your fellow like yourself is a fundamental principle of the Torah.”
That being the case, it is extremely strange that it was precisely his students that were unable to exhibit that very love and had disdain for their fellow.
Paradoxically, the Rebbe explains that it was *due* to their fraternal love that actually caused the animosity towards their fellow.
Each of the students was thoroughly devoted to R. Akiva’s teachings in their own particular understanding thereof.
When they saw that their fellow did not live up to these teachings – according to their specific understanding – they were compelled to rebuke their fellow, so that he too can live up to these teachings.
Ultimately, when their fellow did not adapt to their understanding they were unable to show them proper respect as being truthful people they were unable to be duplicitous “speaking one thing in their heart and another in their mouth.”
It was then their sense of love and responsibility for their fellow that ultimately was the very cause of the animosity that they exhibited towards one another.
The students felt compelled to tell their fellow what to do, and how to act, and when their fellow did not listen to them – as they had a different perception of reality and truth – they defined them as hypocrites and lost all respect for them.
R. Elya Lopian once asked his grandson if he knows the difference between a שונא שקר-a detester of falsehood and an אוהב אמת-a lover of truth.
When his grandson said that he cannot find the difference between the two he explained that the difference is as follows:
A person that detests falsehood will locate an element of falsehood in everything and everyone that he meets, and will eventually end up hating everything and everyone, while someone that loves truth will see some truth in everyone and everything and end up loving everyone for their element of truth.
I recently heard someone express that the definition of a snob “is anyone who takes a small part of you and uses it to make a complete picture of who you are.”
In that sense the students of R. Akiva exhibited a snobbish love that took the worst of their fellows traits and defined them completely by it.
Every person in the world has some failing. As Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of men expressed (Kohelet 7:20) “For there is no righteous man on earth who does good and sins not.”
All of us have some inner monster and challenge that we struggle to overcome and conquer. The mistake of the students of R. Akiva was to amplify their fellows monster and define them by it.
Instead of realizing that their fellows were good, idealistic individuals who may have had some challenges – at least in their own perception – they defined their fellow by the trait that they despised in them and lost all respect for them.
They hated duplicity, hypocrisy and falsehood, and when they located it in their fellow, they could not help but hate them.
The Mishna (Avot 2:4) declares: “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.” We cannot define our fellow, by the metric that we define ourselves. Each of us is completely different and we all face our own challenges, and think in totally different ways.
Instead of defining our fellow as a monster by the aspect in them that we detest – and lose all respect for them – we’d be wise to find their element of truth and love them for it.
When we reach this point of love where we are, as described concerning the Jewish people prior to the giving of the Torah (Rashi, Shemot 19:2) “as one man with one heart,” we will able to reverse the time of the sefirat ha’omer.
Instead of it being a time of mourning lost love and respect, it can be as initially intended – a time for preparation for the giving of the Torah in the ultimate manner – as the Jewish People are literally one individual of one heart.