In remembrance of the tragic deaths of 24,000 Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, several mourning practices are observed in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s important to understand why they died and what it means to us today.
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).
What is the Talmud teaching us by claiming that they died because they did “not treat each other with respect”? This is peculiar for students of Rabbi Akiva, who believed “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) was the Torah’s underlying principle (Torat Kehonim 4:12 / Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4). All students learned this foundational teaching. Perhaps, they learned it, but they didn’t internalize it?
Rabbi Akiva believed good character needed to be lived and not just taught. Before we love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to love ourselves. In order to love ourselves, we need to know ourselves. Of the students who know the general principles of the Torah, how many have internalized these lessons?
As the educator Parker Palmer said, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” We need to spend much more time at the start of the learning process to help our students listen to their lives in order to understand themselves.
In these 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, as we transition from liberation to revelation, we strive to internalize this lesson. In order to “treat each other with respect,” we need to have profound love and deep understanding of ourselves.
– As posted in Blog B’Omer