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An Extra Dose of Honor

May 9, 2020

We’re used to paradoxes in Judaism, and live with them regularly, but the time period of Sefirat Haomer has got to be one of the strangest. On one hand, it’s a time of preparation and anticipation for the greatest moment in our history: the receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  Each evening, we count another day, reminding us that we are getting closer and closer to the special holiday of Shavuot. Ramban in Parshat Emor (Vayikra 23:26) even compares the time period of Sefirat Haomer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot, to the days of Chol Hamoed that come between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Chol Hamoed is certainly a joyous time, and it would follow that these days too should be celebrated.

And yet, these are also days of mourning.  There are various customs as to when the mourning practices begin and end, but all agree that for at least 33 out of these 49 days we are restricted in ways similar to those in mourning. We don’t shave, get haircuts, make weddings, or attend concerts. We spend these days remembering and grieving the loss of the thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, who all died during this tragic time period. 

So how do these two theme work together? Are we supposed to be happy or sad, excited or despondent? How are we to experience all of these emotions at the same time?

Let’s begin with a closer look at the Gemara that describes the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students. The Gemara on Yevamot 62b records:

שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה.

 

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris, and they all died in one time period, because they did not treat each other with respect.

I have two questions on this passage. Firstly, why does it describe Rabbi Akiva’s students as 12,000 זוגים, pairs or study partners? Why not just write more simply: 24,000 students?

Secondly, and most importantly, why were they deserving of such a terrible punishment? Of course, we can never understand Hashem's ways, and why people are punished or rewarded in the way they are, but if the Gemara tells us this story, and we have practices and customs in its commemoration, then we should at least attempt some understanding of how this could be. Don’t we all struggle to show each other proper respect? Was it really that severe that they needed to be wiped out?

Chazal remind us numerous times that we are expected to show respect to all human beings.  “איזהו מכבד המכבד את הבריות, who is honored? He who honors others (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” And, “חביב אדם שנברא בצלם, beloved is man for he is created in [G-d’s] image (Pirkei Avot 3:14).” And there are more examples. It’s something that we should always remember and be working on. Everyone is deserving our respect, no matter who they are, where they come from, or how well we know them. But I don’t think that this was Rabbi Akiva’s students’ struggle.

There is higher level of honor and respect that is demanded of us towards those with whom we have a relationship through Torah. If we have learned Torah from someone or with someone, when we have davened together or performed chesed with another, then the requirement to honor that person takes on even more meaning. Consider a similar idea in another realm. Sometimes in interviews, you’ll hear an athlete degrade or demean an opposing player. Of course, it’s not nice and we would hope for better middot. But very rarely do you hear an athlete speak negatively about someone on his own team. It is understood, it’s part of the code of sports, that when you’ve been through a season together, helped and supported each other, battled in practice, and helped each other improve, that a basic level of respect is a given.

להבדיל, to distinguish between the holy and the mundane, how much more so is this true for things more important that sports. If I have a teacher who has taught me Torah, a neighbor who davens by my side, a chavruta to study with, or a fellow volunteer with whom to partner- are not all of these people deserving of extra כבוד?

One more teaching from Pirkei Avot really solidifies this point:

הַלּוֹמֵד מֵחֲבֵרוֹ פֶּרֶק אֶחָד אוֹ הֲלָכָה אַחַת אוֹ פָסוּק אֶחָד אוֹ דִבּוּר אֶחָד אוֹ אֲפִלּוּ אוֹת אַחַת, צָרִיךְ לִנְהוֹג בּוֹ כָבוֹד, שֶׁכֵּן מָצִינוּ בְדָוִד מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁלֹּא לָמַד מֵאֲחִיתֹפֶל אֶלָּא שְׁנֵי דְבָרִים בִּלְבָד, קְרָאוֹ רַבּוֹ אַלּוּפוֹ וּמְיֻדָּעוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים פרק נ"ה) "וְאַתָּה אֱנוֹשׁ כְּעֶרְכִּי אַלּוּפִי וּמְיֻדָּעִי." וַהֲלֹא דְבָרִים קַל וָחֹמֶר, וּמַה דָּוִד מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁלֹּא לָמַד מֵאֲחִיתֹפֶל אֶלָּא שְׁנֵי דְבָרִים בִּלְבַד קְרָאוֹ רַבּוֹ אַלּוּפוֹ וּמְיֻדָּעוֹ, הַלּוֹמֵד מֵחֲבֵרוֹ פֶּרֶק אֶחָד אוֹ הֲלָכָה אַחַת אוֹ פָסוּק אֶחָד אוֹ דִבּוּר אֶחָד אוֹ אֲפִלּוּ אוֹת אַחַת, עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לִנְהוֹג בּוֹ כָבוֹד.

One who learns from his fellow one chapter, or one law, or one verse, or one word, or even one letter, is obligated to treat him with honor; for so we find with David, king of Israel, who learned from Ahitophel no more than two things, yet called him his master, his guide and his beloved friend, as it is said, “But it was you, a man mine equal, my guide and my beloved friend” (Psalms 55:14). Is this not [an instance of the argument] “from the less to the greater” (kal vehomer)? If David, king of Israel who learned from Ahitophel no more than two things, nevertheless called him his master, his guide and his beloved friend; then in the case of one who learns from his fellow one chapter, or one halakhah, or one verse, or one word, or even one letter, all the more so he is under obligation to treat him with honor.

David Hamelech was a great and mighty king, but he understood that if someone has taught you Torah, צריך לנהג בו כבוד, you must honor them. Presumably, Rabbi Akiva’s students had a basic level of respect that they showed to all people. But they lacked this extra level, the higher requirement to honor those who you’ve learned from and with whom you’ve experienced Torah. The Gemara reminds us that these were pairs, חברותות, study partners. They were students who studied from and with their peers every day, likely for many years. The כבוד that was expected of them wasn’t just basic כבוד, but a deeper honor and reverence for those from whom you’ve learned. And specifically because these students were such an important piece of the transmission of Torah, as they would be the ones to pass on the Torah and teachings of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, they could only do so if their actions demonstrated that they understood the significance of Torah and how it must affect your actions. If they failed to grant the respect that a חברותא deserves, then there is something fundamental that is missing from their connection to Torah.

And that’s why mourning their loss is the beginning of our preparation for Shavuot. When we received the Torah, we didn’t merely get a book of laws or stories. We received something transformative; we were holding the guide to life itself. When we study Torah, it’s not just another subject. When we read a sefer, it’s not just another book. And when we study with someone, that person is not just another human being. Like David Hamelech, let’s remember how precious each word of Torah is. And by extension, it must affect the way we act. Of course, everyone deserves our respect. But when it comes to our fellow community members, our spiritual “teammates,” those with whom we’ve learned and davened, we must make sure to give an extra dose of כבוד and honor.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Daniel Fox

Tue, August 3 2021 25 Av 5781