The Shulchan Aruch (493:1) reports on the practice of not getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. Why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There we learn:
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; 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 Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”. (Yevamot 62b)
Rabbi Akiba’s students died because they did not treat each other with respect. It would be surprising to learn that one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of it being 24,000?
Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd Rabbi Akiba became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). Rabbi Akiva gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned in this time. So while he told his students explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife, living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his student the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiba did not model this for them?
Today bein Lag B’Omer , we should take a moment and reflect on how we should treat each other with respect and how we might teach this lesson to others. Lately there is a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind their traditional hetero-normative assumptions of marriage of the religious establishment. While they have every right to marginalize people who do not live by their standards within the context of their religion, in a country that claims a division between church and state this should have no bearings on US law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in limiting these rights to heterosexual couples.
It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage. How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiba? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves. Looking no further than the horrible divorce rate in this country it is clear that we do not model this respect in hetero-normative marriage. And we surely do not model this by barring two consensual adults who love each other from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple.
As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. Getting lost in the form of a wedding completely misses the conversation about the content of a marriage. Who better to guide the conversation about commitment? It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. We clearly do not want to leave this conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians. We want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect, we need to model it. So now with Lag B’Omer behind us we can all get married.