In this week’s Parsha the Torah commands us to count the days from Pesach until Shavuos – 50 days. This is known as the mitzva of Sefiras Ha’Omer – the counting of the Omer. Logically, this period of the calendar should have been a happy time for the Jewish people as we count toward Shavuos and celebrating the anniversary of G-d giving us the Torah. However, there are laws of mourning that apply during this time period.
The Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students and they all died during one time period – between Pesach and Shavuos. Rabbi Akiva then taught another five students – Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. Those five students disseminated the teachings of Rabbi Akiva.
The Talmud does not discuss what happened to the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva other than saying they all died. There are theories advanced by some of the great Torah scholars that they died in the Bar-Kochba revolt. However, the Talmud is not interested in how they died. Rather, the Talmud wants to know why they died? How could so many students of the greatest teacher – Rabbi Akiva – be punished and die? That’s so puzzling? The Talmud answers that they were not respectful of one another and for that they were punished.
Now, this answer of the Talmud seems puzzling at first. In Pirkei Avos we learn that Rabbi Akiva’s famous phrase whose importance he constantly emphasized was – also from today’s Parsha - “love you neighborhood as yourself” It is most likely that Rabbi Akiva also emphasized this verse to his students. So, how could they – of all people – not show respect to each other?
Rabbi Dovid Gotlieb of Ramat Beit Shemesh and a teacher in Yeshivas Har Etzion in the Gush raised this question and provided the following answer.
When we see students return from Israel or religious programs and turned onto Judaism, many of us react, “Look how religious he/she became!” How do we define ‘religious”? In our minds she dresses differently – long sleeves and skirts - he dresses differently – wears a jacket and maybe a hat – their davening is serious – much shuckling and religious calisthenics – they constantly use terms such as Baruch Hashem, Im Yirtzeh Hashem etc. – they spend much of their spare time learning in the shul or the Bais Midrash.
We do not picture in our mind the definition of “religious” in terms of Mitzvos between man and man. When is the last time you heard somebody say, “Oh, he is so religious! He helped that elderly person with shopping!” “Wow! What a religious boy! He cleaned up the Shabbos table and let his mother sit and relax!” “He is so religious! He let his parents sleep and figured out the problem on his own!” “Did you see him not charge interest on that loan?” We don’t think along those lines.
But that is the problem! We associate “frum” or “religious” with Shabbos observance, davening, tefillin and other mitzvos between man and G-d. We don’t think that G-d cares as much about the mitzvos between man and man.
Rabbi Akiva’s students certainly heard the phrases, “Love your neighbor as yourself” “Don’t do to another what you don’t want done to you” over and over again from him. However, they thought that they knew better than their rebbe - Rabbi Akiva. They thought that G-d wants the emphasis to be on the mitzvos between man and G-d. Sure, mitzvos between man and man are important. However, the mitzvos between man and G-d are more important. So, the Rabbis teach us that – though they did not intentionally mock the words of their Rebbe – Rabbi Akiva – and there was no malice in their intentions or action – they made a fatal error thinking that mitzvos between man and man are not as important as mitzvos between man and G-d and suffered the consequences.
While one of my children studied in Israel, he heard Rabbi Wein say on several occasions that a person must always strive to be a Jew first and everything else second. So I can be an American, an Israeli, a Zionist, a member of the Agudah or of Mizrachi, but these identities must compliment my Jewish identity, not the other way around. We make the mistake, many times without malicious intent, of being liberals first and Jews second, of being republicans first and Jews second, of being frum first and Jews second! I can do everything. I can master 100 blat of Gemara and donate to a 1000 worthy causes, but if I do not treat my fellow human beings with dignity, then my Jewish identity is missing. No one is perfect. We all have faults. But that does not mean I cannot try to represent the full puzzle of Torah, both the Mitzvos between man and G-d and those that govern interaction with others—because for a truly Jewish person, everything counts.