Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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9 Iyar 5761 - May 2, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
For Not Having Shown Respect for One Another

by HaRav Eliezer Lopian

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) (Yevomos 62b).

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 wholesale wrath?

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 of perfection.

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 measure.

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 perpetuation?

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 advantage.

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 pardonably, accordingly.

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