We are taught that R' Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of
disciples, from Gevas to Antiparas, all of whom died in one
period because they did not show the proper respect for one
another. The world was desolate and Torah was being
forgotten, explains Rashi, until R' Akiva came to the Sages
in the south and taught it to them: R' Meir, R' Yehuda and
three others. They resurrected the Torah from near oblivion
and reestablished it.
It is taught: all of the disciples died during the period
between Pesach and Shavuos. Said R' Chama bar Tova, and some
say R' Chiya bar Aviyo: All of them died a horrible death.
Of what sort? Said R' Nachman: askeroh (diphtheria)
We cannot help but be shocked by such a terrible punishment.
Sages and luminaries of the generation belittled and
degraded one another? Was it merely their lacking the proper
respect that brought upon their death?
The wording is: "They did not accord respect." That must
mean that they did not accord the fitting respect [but not
that they belittled] (from my Father, zt"l).
It goes without saying that the courtesy and deference that
the disciples of R' Akiva showed to every person must
necessarily have been greater than the honor we show towards
the leaders of our generation! It must be that they failed
to properly revere one another according to their respective
levels. This is why they were punished with death -- and a
difficult form of death.
Nor did any measure of their righteousness or Torah wisdom
protect them. Even the merit of their great master, R'
Akiva, did not avail -- the same master whom Moshe Rabbenu
saw, as he scanned the future generations of leaders, and of
whom he inquired why the Torah was not given through him
(Menochos 29; Shabbos 89). Of this same R'
Akiva Chazal said: "No prophet the likes of Moshe arose in
Israel' -- a prophet like him, not, but someone of his
stature, yes. Who was this? R' Akiva" (Yalkut
Reuveni). And the merit of this master, giant of giants,
was unable to save them!
It is brought in the work Chut Meshulosh that one of
the disciples of the Chasam Sofer was once taken ill. The
best physicians were at a loss to help him and he was on the
verge of death. At this point, the Chasam Sofer entered the
room and charged everyone to leave. One disciple succeeded
in hiding so that he could at least hear what took place.
The Chasam Sofer asked his disciple what he saw and he
replied that he was now being judged before the Heavenly
Court. The consensus there was a verdict of death but one
lone voice argued that he be spared in the merit of his
great master, since his death would cause the Chasam Sofer
great pain. "If that is the case," said the Chasam Sofer,
"good." And the disciple recovered.
We cannot possibly imagine the terrible pain of R' Akiva
upon seeing his beloved disciples dying away, by the
thousands. He had pinned his hopes that they would
perpetuate Torah amongst Jewry for the current and coming
generations. The bereaved master visits one sickbed after
another and sees his beloved disciples writhing in their
death throes. How he must have prayed for them; how many
tears he must have shed over them, and likewise, all of
Jewry implored for them before their Heavenly Father! But
their prayers were rejected. R' Akiva attended twenty-four
thousand funerals until every last disciple was gone; not
one remained. In his old age, he taught five other disciples
in the south and through them, he was able to reestablish
Torah amongst Jewry.
Why did Hashem not take his great pain and agony into
consideration? Why did He not heed the prayers of all
Klal Yisroel? Why did He threaten to leave them
completely bereft of Torah, of future leaders and shepherds?
Why did Hashem not implement the Measure of Mercy? Why this
In order to understand this properly, we must contemplate
the reason why these students failed to respect one another.
Can we actually imagine that they abused one another,
debased one another out of jealousy and disdain, G-d forbid?
Begrudged one another their due respect? Rather, the reason
why they were negligent in the proper deference was out of
their own greatness and superiority. In discerning a shadow
of shortcoming, a hint of weakness, a slight blemish in
their fellow disciple, they were unable to condone, overlook
or judge favorably. The slightest imperfection they beheld
in a colleague caused them to look down upon the other; they
were actually incapable of respecting someone who fell short
It is told that a virtuoso musician once heard a rusty door
hinge creaking -- and fainted away. We see to what extent a
person can refine his sense of hearing to the point that he
cannot bear any aberration, and a normal dissonance will
cause him to faint. The same goes for a gifted artist who
studies a picture. A layman will think it is fine and
lovely, but the artist with his developed, acute sense, will
be thrown off by any slight imperfection and will not abide
looking at it. He will discount any talent that went into
the picture and reject it for its sole imperfection.
R' Akiva's disciples were unable to bear the slightest
blemishes in their compatriots, anything that marred the
harmony of perfection, and were consequently unable to show
the proper respect for those with faults, were they ever so
slight or delicate.
Since this was their shortcoming, they were judged
accordingly, as R' Yisroel Salanter notes in Ohr
Yisroel on the question of why R' Akiva's prayers [for
rain] were answered, whereas R' Eliezer's prayers were not.
The reason, says the gemora, is because "the one
overcomes his nature and the other does not." R' Eliezer
will receive great reward for serving his master as he did.
But since as a rule he did not try to overcome his own
natural inclination with regard to others, to do things in
spite of himself, how could he expect that Hashem overlook
the failings of the public for whom he was praying, whom he
was representing, in spite of Himself, as it were? And so,
his prayers were not answered.
Chazal say: "Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they
conducted themselves according to the letter of the law."
That generation really deserved destruction according to the
strict measure of justice. But there would have been leeway
for the measure of mercy -- had they, themselves, employed
it in their dealings and showed mercy above and beyond the
required, lifnim mishuras hadin. Measure for
They deserved the destruction. And since the disciples of R'
Akiva could not bear imperfections among their colleagues,
and they did not overlook them to accord their comrades the
proper deference, so were they treated in Heaven: their
respective blemishes and shortcomings were similarly not
overlooked, and so they were judged strictly, harshly,
without condoning. Nothing could help them since this was
their own approach and conduct. They had no saving grace
since they did not take the saving graces of their
colleagues -- all of their merits and wisdom and good deeds -
- into account. Thus, Heaven could provide them with no
leeway or overlook negligible flaws.
The reason why they died in the interim between Pesach and
Shavuos might be because this is the time especially
propitious for acquiring Torah and the traits that enable
its acquisition, one of which is "sharing the burden of a
friend and judging him favorably." Since they did not do
this, they had to be punished.
The Torah way is to show respect for every bit of good in
others and to see only that good. The Rebbe R' Elimelech of
Lizensk composed a special prayer in which he asked that "we
see only the good in our friends and not their flaws."
"All sins are covered over through love." If sins can be
glossed over, how much more so slight flaws in a Torah
scholar who is great in traits and good deeds and devotes
his entire life to serving Hashem. Men of caliber should be
kind -- loving enough to be able to ignore small
imperfections that are hardly noticeable. Just as "He did
not behold iniquity in Yaakov nor see perverseness in
Yisroel." They, too, should have overlooked small faults in
their colleagues who were the elite of the people.
The reason why Hashem did not take R' Akiva's pain into
consideration might be to fault R' Akiva for not having
taught them the need for mutual respect. He should have
inculcated it deeply into their souls and fostered a strong
awareness of the necessary respect demanded of one another.
He should have been sensitive to their character flaws and
taken steps to cure it.
Why was Heaven not concerned over the threat to Torah's
Apparently, these particular students were not sufficiently
worthy to carry on the tradition of Torah transmission to
their generation. They would have faulted the people for
every small shortcoming and laid the entire world to waste
through their censure and disapproval of puny things, to say
nothing of serious transgressions. There would have been
more disadvantage in their Torah leadership than
Under these circumstances, they had to die, and their death
became a cause of mourning for all of Jewry to the end of
the generations. The days of Sefira are sad ones
since their Torah is lost to us forever and the lesson is
reinforced each year to teach us to see what is good and
fine in others.
May we thus merit that Heaven look upon us favorably and