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Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: "Respectfully yours" – A matter of sensitivity
There appears to be a strong connection between the Festivals of Pesach and Shavuous and the counting of the omer. Each Jew began to count in anticipation of receiving the Torah. Counting upwards is exciting. The time of the counting of the omer are days of mourning. The 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died because they did not treat each other with due respect. This lack of respect means lacking the sensitivity to avoid upsetting others. The Torah code of conduct requires us to build fences that prevent us form causing any offence to others. The Torah teaches us to be sensitive to the differences between the donkey and the ox. Rebbi suffered severe pain for many years when he did not pity a calf. We must respect and revere others like we respect and have reverence for G'd. Before we satisfy our needs, we must make sure to be sensitive to the needs of others. The Torah is so great that it requires 100% purity in its transmission. Character building is a prerequisite for accepting the Torah. To transmit the Torah from one generation to the next, we must live up to the high standards of the Torah.
Counting the omer
In this week's Torah portion we are commanded to count each day for seven weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuous (Vayikra 23:15-16). This commandment is referred to as the "counting of the omer". Just before this commandment, the Torah speaks about Pesach (Vayikra 23:4-7); and just after, the Torah speaks about Shavuous (Vayikra 23:16-22). There appears to be a strong connection between the Festivals of Pesach and Shavuous and the counting of the omer.
Pesach and Shavuous
Pesach is the Festival dedicated to the re-enactment of the exodus from Egypt. It is the time of the year when we celebrate our freedom as a nation. However, this freedom would not be complete if it were not followed by Shavuous, the giving of the Torah. G'd told Moses that after he takes the Jewish people out of Egypt, they will come to serve Him at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah (Shemos 3:12). The Midrash relates that when the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt, they asked Moses when this service would take place. Moses told them it would be in fifty days, and each one began to count, in anticipation of receiving the Torah.
Counting up or down?
There are two ways to count towards an event: one is to count up; the other is to count down. A young couple, eagerly waiting to get married, counts down the days with great anticipation. However, the Sefer Hachinuch teaches us that one of the reasons that we do not count down the days to receiving the Torah is for psychological concerns. Starting a count with such a large number of 49 is psychologically difficult; whereas, counting upwards is exciting.
Days of mourning
However, we find something very strange during the time of the counting of the omer. We are forbidden to celebrate during this time. These are days of mourning. For example, we are prohibited from getting married and playing music. This time is similar to the mourning period of the three weeks prior to the 9th of Av (the destruction of the Temple). How do we explain why such a happy event of counting towards receiving the Torah is filled with days of mourning?
The students of Rabbi Akiva
Our Sages (Yevamos 62b) relate a terrible tragedy that befell the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time. His teaching was so great that he attracted 24,000 students from all over the land of Israel to learn with him. All of these students died between the time of Pesach and Shavuous. The Talmud (ibid) explains that the reason they received this extreme Divine punishment was because they did not treat each other with due respect. We must keep in mind that the "lack of respect" exhibited by these students, who were on a very high spiritual level, have very little in common with what we experience today. The higher the spiritual level, the closer one is to G'd, the greater are the consequences for any misconduct. This "lack of respect" was so minute that even Rabbi Akiva did not detect it before it was too late.
Lack of sensitivity
Rav Aaron Kotler, the founder of the Lakewood Yeshiva, explains that this lack of respect means lacking the sensitivity to avoid upsetting others. In most cases, this is unintentional. Everyone around us has different tolerances to our acts and omissions. For example, some are more sensitive to tidiness than others. By not being sensitive to other's feelings, we are lacking respect for them. A stark example would be falling asleep during a conversation with someone else. Those who are sensitive to others will take extra precautions to avoid hurting their feelings.
Torah attitude towards sensitivity
The code of conduct of the non-Torah world is that as long as one does not intend to cause harm to others almost any conduct is acceptable. The Torah code of conduct is much more onerous. We must build fences that prevent us form causing any offence to others, whether or not the offence is intentional.
Sensitivity to animals
The Torah (Devarim 22:10) commands us not to harness a donkey and an ox to work together. One of the reasons is that the Torah wants us to be sensitive to the differences between these animals. The ox chews it cud. Therefore, when the ox and donkey are working together in the field after having been fed, the ox continues to digest its food, while the donkey has no more food to eat. This "hurts" the donkey's feelings. The Torah teaches us to "respect" the donkey by being sensitive to its feelings.
Rebbi, the calf, and the weasels
Rebbi, the great sage who first transcribed the Oral Torah to writing, was punished because of his insensitivity to an animal. A calf was being taken to be slaughtered when it broke away and hid in terror under Rebbi's clothing (Bava Metzia 85a). Rebbi said to the calf, "Go, for this you were created." Thereupon, the Heavenly Court declared, "Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him." Apparently, Rebbi suffered severe pain for many years. However, one day Rebbi's maid was sweeping the house, when she saw some young weasels lying on the floor. She began to sweep them away. Rebbi commanded her to stop. "Let them be", he said. Thereupon, the Heavenly Court declared, "Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him." And the severe pain that inflicted Rebbi disappeared.
Reverence for G'd
Our sages taught us that "the honour owing to your disciple should be as precious to you as yours. The honour owing to your fellow should be like the reverence owing to your master. And the reverence owing to your master should be like the reverence owing to Heaven" (Perkei Avos 4:12). We must respect and revere others, our teachers, friends, students and even animals, like we respect and have reverence for G'd. Of course, there are different levels of respect and reverence. But we must be sensitive to the needs and feelings of everyone around us at all times.
In the second paragraph of the Shema it says, "I [G'd] will provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied" (Devarim 11:15). The Talmud (Brachos 40a) learns from this that before we eat our food, we must make sure that our domestic animals have been fed. Before we satisfy our needs, we must make sure to be sensitive to the needs of others.
When the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died, so much great Torah learning was lost with them. Rabbi Akiva had to start from scratch and only found six students: R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Shimon and R. Eleazer ben Shamua. Through them Rabbi Akiva revived the Torah at that time. These Torah giants are mentioned throughout the Talmud. If only six Torah scholars helped the Jewish people to maintain the Torah, imagine for a moment what greatness the Jewish people would have attained if 24,000 students participated. These 24,000 students were all great scholars and fine people. Unfortunately, they suffered from a flaw in their character that caused them to lose their lives. Rabbi Akiva was an integral link in the chain of the transmission of the Torah from Mount Sinai. The Torah is so great that it requires 100% purity in its transmission. No flaw in the transmission process is permitted.
Building character by counting
It is unlikely that the 24,000 students only exhibited their character flaw during the time between Pesach and Shavuous. So why is it that they all died during that time? Our Rabbis explain that this is a time for us to prepare to accept the Torah. Just as our ancestors spent these seven weeks in preparation, so it is expected of every generation to prepare to accept the Torah every year at this time. Character building is a prerequisite for accepting the Torah.
This is why the Divine punishment came especially during this period when every Jew is expected to be extra cautious and sensitive to the feelings of others as part of the preparation toward personal acceptance of the Torah. Although we lost a lot of Torah scholarship with the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, we learned one very important lesson. We must treat each other with the deepest respect at all times and be sensitive to the feelings of others. In order to be part of the transmission of the Torah from one generation to the next, we must live up to the high standards of the Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network