by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas Achrei Mos/Kedoshim (70)The double sedras this week provide the seam in the book of Leviticus between the laws exclusively for the priests and the laws for all the people, who are to conduct themselves as a nation of priests.
One of the most famous verses in the Torah is found in Kedoshim.
You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against members of your people; and you shall love your fellow as yourself - I am Hashem.
You shall love your fellow as yourself : Rashi: Rabbi Akiva said: This is a great principle in the Torah.
This is a straight forward Rashi. I don't think anything was bothering Rashi here. He made the comment to teach the importance of "menchlichkeit" and dealing lovingly with others! It shows us that one of Rashi's aims in his commentary is to teach us midos tovos - good behavior.
Let us look at a different aspect of Rabbi Akiva's statement.
THE MOURNING DURING THE SEFIRAS HA'OMER
This time of year is s'feras Haomer - counting of the Omer. This is a period of semi-mourning; no weddings, music, haircuts etc. The reason for this is found in the Talmud (Yevamos 62b). We are told that during this period 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague. Why? Because they did not behave respectfully one to another.
QUESTIONING THE CUSTOM
There are several cogent questions that can be asked about this well entrenched custom of the semi-mourning period. Some Questions:
" Of all people not treat one's fellow with respect are Rabbi Akiva's students! He emphasized this mitzvah so much calling it a "great principle in the Torah" and his students ignored his teaching ?!
" Why such a long mourning period? The mourning for the destruction of our two Temples is only three weeks, 21 days, (From 17th of Tamuz to 9th of Av) while this is for 33 days!
" We have had other more destructive periods in history and no mourning days beyond one was instituted. In Auschwitz 24,000 people were murdered in a day!
" Why a mourning period at all for these students - after all it was their own disrespectful behavior that was the cause of their deaths?
To understand this we need to look at the historical background.
The idea discussed below was originally suggested by Rabbi Shubert Spero of Cleveland, today professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University.
Rabbi Akiva lived after the destruction of the second Temple. Sixty years after the destruction, Shimon Bar Kochva appeared on the scene. Rabbi Akiva was one of his (political) followers. Rabbi Akiva even believed that Bar Kochva was the meshiach!
UNCOVERING THE SECRET
Bar Kochva lead a rebellion against the Roman conquerors and was ingloriously defeated. The final outpost, the city of Betar, was totally destroyed and Bar Kochva was killed as were thousands of the Jewish rebels. Almost certainly among them were Rabbi Akiva's students; they too were killed. The city of Betar fell on the 9th of Av ! The same date as the destruction of the Temples. Rambam (Laws of Fasts 5:3) says the significance of the destruction of Betar was as great as that of the Temples'. Important to add is that Rav Sherira Goan (died 1000C.E.) in his letter outlining the history of the Talmudic era, says that the students of Rabbi Akiva died in 'Shmad' - religious battles with the goyim. This lends much weight to the theory that Akiva's students died in the battles with the Romans.
In light of these facts we can better understand the significance of the 33 day mourning period between Pesach and Lag B'Omer. Indeed we mourn the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students' deaths which occurred due to battles with Rome over Jewish independence in the Land of Israel. Why is this period even longer than that for the Temples? Perhaps we can say because it signified the extinguishing the last hope for national independence for many, many years. And perhaps the Talmudic comment that the students died in a plague was just a cover-up not to publicize the rebellion against their Roman rulers. Or perhaps it was true that they didn't respect one another and that was the real reason they were defeated by Rome! Just as the Temple itself was destroyed because of baseless hatred between Jews, so too was Betar.
This is being written when modern Israel celebrates it 62nd birthday. Sixty two years since the renewal of Jewish independence in the land of Israel. We have much to be thankful for and still much to pray for. That Hashem should continue to support and protect us from our hateful, bloodthirsty, neighbors - near and far! And let us not forget the real reason Betar (and the Temples) fell - not respecting our brother Jews.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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