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Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: "Respectfully yours" - A matter of sensitivity


There is a strong connection between Pesach and Shavuous and the counting of the omer. Everyone started 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 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 parasha we are instructed to count every 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, it speaks about Shavuous (Vayikra 23:16-22). It is evident that there is a strong connection between Pesach and Shavuous and the counting of the omer. The Ramban explains that this period is to some measure considered as Chol Hamoed, intermediate days, similar to the days between Sukkoth and Shemini Atzeres.

Pesach and Shavuous

In order to understand this connection, we must analyze the nature of these two festivals. During Pesach we commemorate the exodus from Egypt and celebrate our freedom as a nation. However, this freedom would not be complete if it were not followed by Shavuous, when we received the Torah. G'd told Moses that after the exodus, they would come to serve Him at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah (Shemos 3:12). The Midrash relates that when Moses told the Jewish people, they asked him when it would happen. Moses told them that it would be after fifty days. Immediately, says the Midrash, they started to count, in anticipation of this great event.

Counting up or down?

Normally, when we count towards an event we count the days left and count down. However, when we count omer we count each day and add them up. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that one of the reasons that we do not count down towards receiving the Torah is for psychological concerns. Starting a count with such a large number as 49 can be depressing, for it shows that there is a long time to wait. We therefore count up which is encouraging and makes us excited. We may add that counting down indicates that the days leading to the event are not significant and our emphasis is totally focused on the coming event. By counting up, we show that each day is important, as we need them to prepare ourselves to be ready to receive the Torah.

Days of mourning

However, this time, that originally were joyous days of preparation to receive the Torah, later turned into a period of mourning. For 33 days we do not take haircuts, and are prohibited from getting married and playing music.

The students of Rabbi Akiva

The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) describes a terrible tragedy that befell the students of Rabbi Akiva during this time. Rabb Akiva had attracted 24,000 students from all over the land of Israel to learn by him. These students all died between Pesach and Shavuous. The Talmud (ibid) explains that they received this extreme Divine punishment because they did not treat each other with due respect. These students, were on a very high spiritual level. Their "lack of respect" has very little in common with the lack of respect we experience today. It was so minute that even Rabbi Akiva did not detect it before it was too late.

Lack of sensitivity

Rav Aaron Kotler, the late Rosh Yeshiva and founder of Lakewood Yeshiva, explains that they lacked the sensitivity to avoid upsetting others. In general, such a lack of sensitivity is unintentional. Everyone has different tolerance levels. For example, some are more sensitive to tidiness than others. If we are not sensitive to other people's feelings, we lack in our respect for them. A stark example would be falling asleep during a conversation. People who are sensitive to others will take extra precautions to ensure that they do not hurt someone else's feelings.

Torah attitude towards sensitivity

Most people feel that as long as they do not intend to cause harm to others, they can do what they want. The Torah code of conduct is much more onerous. The Torah expects us to build "fences" and take precautions to prevent causing any offence to others.

Reverence for others

Our sages teach us that "the honour owing to your disciple should be as precious to you as your own. 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" (Pirkei Avos 4:12). We must honour and revere our teachers, friends and students, like we honour and have reverence for G'd. Rabbeinu Yona explains that obviously there are different levels of honour and reverence. But we must be sensitive to the needs and feelings of everyone around us at all times.

Sensitivity to animals

The Torah (Devarim 22:10) instructs us not to harness a donkey and an ox together. One of the reasons for this prohibition 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

Rabbi Yehuda Hanosi, a.k.a. Rebbi, the great sage who edited the Mishnah, was once punished because of a slight 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." Immediately the Heavenly Court declared, "Since he takes 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, and she saw some young weasels lying on the floor. When she began to sweep them away, Rebbi told her to stop. Thereupon, the Heavenly Court declared, "Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate with him." And at that moment the severe pain disappeared.

The Shema

In the second paragraph of 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). Based on this, the Talmud (Berachos 40a) teaches that before we eat our food, we must make sure that our domestic animals have been fed. The Torah expects us to be sensitive to the needs of our animals before we satisfy our own needs.

100% purity

When the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died, so much Torah learning was lost with them. Rabbi Akiva had to start from scratch with just six students: R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Shimon and R. Eleazer ben Shamua. These students turned into Torah giants. They are mentioned throughout the Talmud. Through them Rabbi Akiva revived the Torah. If six Torah scholars were able to produce and maintain the Oral Torah, the way we know it today, we can only imagine what great treasure the Jewish people would have had, if the original 24,000 students had participated, and their discussions would have been recorded for posterity.

Integral link

These 24,000 students were all great scholars and fine people. How can it be that a minor flaw in their character caused such a tragedy that they lost their lives? The answer is that Rabbi Akiva was an integral link in the chain of the transmission of the Torah from Mount Sinai. The Torah requires 100% purity in its transmission. Just like a Sefer Torah, our safeguard of the written law, is only kosher if it is written 100% correctly, so we must safeguard the oral law, and make sure that there is no flaw in its transmission.

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 this period? Our Rabbis explain that this is a time for each of us to prepare to accept the Torah. Just as our ancestors spent these seven weeks in preparation, in every generation we are expected to prepare ourselves to accept the Torah at this time of the year. Character building is a most important prerequisite for accepting the Torah.

High standards

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. For this is part and parcel of our preparation toward our personal acceptance of the Torah. Although we lost a lot of Torah scholarship with the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, it teaches us one very important lesson. We must treat each other with the deepest respect and be sensitive to each other's feelings. When we live up to the high standards of the Torah, we also can be part of the transmission of the Torah for future generations.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel