Former Shlaiach in Atlanta
For most Jewish communities, Lag BaOmer, which falls on this coming Tuesday, marks the end of the Sefirat HaOmer mourning practices. The Gemara (BT Yevamot 62b) famously explains the reason behind these customs:
“R’ Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students… and they all died during the same period, because they did not treat each other with respect…”
Yet, how can this be? After all, last Shabbat, Parshat Kedoshim, we learned Rashi’s well-known statement:
“‘You shall love your fellow as yourself’ – R’ Akiva said, ‘This is a great rule of the Torah.’” (Rashi – Vayikra 19:18)
In other words, although R’ Akiva’s motto was v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (“love your fellow as yourself”), 24,000 of his students died in a plague because they did not observe this very mitzvah! How could this have occurred? Was R’ Akiva somehow derelict in his teaching?
We can learn an important lesson from the answer to these questions.
Contrary to popular belief, R’ Akiva’s students were not elitist snobs whose favorite pastime was arrogantly boasting about their learning and demeaning their peers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not only did R’ Akiva’s students observe the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, they observed it meticulously.
Nevertheless, they did not observe in a manner befitting a student of R’ Akiva. One who learned in R’ Akiva’s beit midrash – a beit midrash where the rosh yeshiva constantly repeated the maxim, “love your fellow as yourself – this is a great rule of the Torah” – should have conducted himself otherwise. R’ Akiva’s students should not just have been “yet another” group of people observing the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha and treating their peers with respect. Instead, their observance of this particular mitzvah should have been outstanding and beyond compare. V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha should not have been “just another” mitzvah for them; it should have been “a great rule of the Torah”! Sadly, they erred in this regard, and therefore, they were punished severely.
I believe that this message is relevant for our generation as well.
Ethics are a current hot topic: What is ethical behavior? How should one conduct oneself? What is the best way to build a proper, functioning society?
As individuals who live Torah-based lives, we must strive for a different type of ethics. As Jews who are proud of our heritage and chosen path, we must not aspire to be merely “yet another ethical man”. Rather, we must work to become the ethical man! When one is guided by the Torah, which is the true and ultimate ethical model, one must live a life which is the epitome of ethics.
May we all be privileged to internalize and implement this ideal.