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SEFIRA & LAG B-OMER
Adapted from Minchas Asher, by Rav Asher Weiss
We are now in the midst of the days of Sefira, days of mourning and approaching Lag b'Omer. What is the connection?
The gemora (Yevamos 62b) relates what happened to Rabbi Akiva's talmidim: Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 disciples … and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua (in Koheles Rabba it adds Rabbi Nechemia and Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar); and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.
Koheles Raba (Chap. 11) relates that when Rabbi Akiva went to the Masters of the South he told them, "I had 24,000 talmidim and they all died because they had a derisory view of each other's Torah. Don't you be like them."
The commentaries throughout the ages have toiled to understand the terrible punishment of death that was meted out to thousands of talmidim due to having lack of respect for each other. Since when does the mitzvah of respecting your friend carry with it the death penalty?
We can answer very simply. It was specifically because they were the talmidim of the great Torah giant Rabbi Akiva that Heaven dealt with them stringently being exacting even on minute details regarding interpersonal relationships (bein adam lechaveiro). Rabbi Akiva himself taught us (Avos 3:14) "Man is beloved being that he was created in the Divine image. It was an even greater endearment to inform him that he was created in the Divine image." The Toras Kohanim states, "Rabbi Akiva said, And you shall love your neighbor like yourself, this is a major principle in the Torah." From this we see that Rabbi Akiva's philosophy was that love of honor of one's friend are basic principles in the Torah. Man endearment is a result of Hashem's love of Mankind. It reveals itself in his being created in the Divine image. Therefore Rabbi Akiva's talmidim especially were held to an accounting for not relating to each other with proper respect.
We can take this even further. The talmidim of Rabbi Akiva did not die as a punishment for their improper behavior. We find nowhere that lack of respect carries with it the penalty of Heavenly death. Rather the Divine Supervision viewed the talmidim of such a giant Torah personality as Rabbi Akiva as destined to be the transmitters of the Torah to disseminate it to the generations after them. The Torah of the talmidim of the major Torah educators must be pure and uncorrupted by any imperfection or stain. These talmidim who didn't know how to respect each other were found unworthy of such a lofty position. By force it was decreed upon them to step aside and make room for other better talmidim, worthy of the position of the transmitters of their great rebbe's Torah to all generations.
If you study the Talmud you find that most of the Torah we have today is from these later talmidim of Rabbi Akiva: "An anonymous mishnah is Rabbi Meir, an anonymous Sifra is Rabbi Yehuda, an anonymous Sifre is Rabbi Shimon, an anonymous Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemia, and all of them according to Rabbi Akiva" (Sanhedrin 86a), Almost all of our Oral Law is the inheritance from these later talmidim of Rabbi Akiva, the Masters from the South, who adhered to the Torah of their Rebbe and honored each other properly. But from the thousands of talmidim who did not show proper respect, there is left absolutely no recollection.
These later talmidim have left us remarkable statements regarding proper character: "Rabbi Meir said, one who blesses a Jew is as if he blessed the Shechina (Tanchuma Vayechi 2); "Rabbi Meir said, be humble in front of everyone (Avos 4:10); "Rabbi Yehuda said, one who greets his friend should view it as if he is greeting the Shechina" (Shir Hashirim Rabba 2:15); "Rabbi Shimon said, it is better that a person throw himself into a furnace of fire and not embarrass his friend in public" (Berachos 43b); "Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua said, the honor of your talmidim should be as dear to you as your own, and your friend's honor like the honor of your rebbe, and your rebbe's honor like the honor of Heaven" (Avos 4:15); and many more such statements and incidents.
These later talmidim of Rabbi Akiva left behind them a treasure of Torah based on firm foundations of proper character, and the love and honor of one's friends. They were the ones who merited passing on the Torah for all generations and it is this Torah which has stood by us and will never leave the Jewish People.
On Lag b'Omer the custom of Klal Yisroel is to celebrate in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Many reasons have been given for this celebration. Many have claimed that on this day Rabbi Shimon departed and went up to Heaven. However, the Chida writes that on this day Rabbi Akiva started teaching the Masters of the South.
The Meiri in Yevamos writes that it was on this day that the plague ceased. We know that the 49 days of the Counting of the Omer are directly connected to the 48 ways of learning Torah (Avos chap. 6). When we count the ways of learning Torah, day by day, it comes out that on the 32nd day we have to study "love of people."
When the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva perfected themselves on the 32nd day with love of others, the plague stopped on the 33rd day. In our times, when each day seems more cursed than yesterday, and so many dangers and illness are plaguing Klal Yisroel, it is incumbent upon us to strengthen our love of our neighbors and honor of our friends in order that we shall find life and true harmony.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network