Parshat Emor תשפא
This week’s parsha, Emor, contains the mitzvah to count the “omer.” We count 49 days from the second day of Pesach until the day before Shavuot, the day on which the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai. These days were originally days of supreme happiness, for through these days the Jewish people performed the ultimate act of kindness to Hashem. The prophet Jeremiah explains (2:2):
(ב) הָלֹךְ וְקָרָאתָ בְאָזְנֵי יְרוּשָׁלַם לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר יְדֹוָד זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה
2) Go and call out in the ears of Jerusalem saying, “Thus said Hashem! I recall for you favorably the kindness of your youth, your marital fidelity, your following Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.”
The Jewish people, a young nation, had just left Egypt. They put all of their trust in Hashem, following Him blindly into the wilderness without knowing from where their sustenance would come. The Malbim (d. 1879) compares it to a wife who fully trusts her husband and follows him wherever his heart takes him without questioning how he plans to provide for her. This trust endears her to him and strengthens their relationship. Similarly, because of the Jewish nation’s kindness of following Hashem into the wilderness, these days were to be days of joy and happiness. Upon their receiving the Torah everything became clear, and they realized that following Hashem was perfect and therefore, the only option. But, until that point they had put all their trust in Hashem without reservation.
With the passage of time, however, those same days have unfortunately become days of mourning. Our Sages teach us a profound lesson from this.
Something holy and good from Hashem intended for our good stands in great danger, for it can easily be transmuted to bad. If not received properly, it can turn into a curse instead of a blessing. This is what occurred in the time between Pesach and Shavuot. The days that were days of joy and happiness turned into days of mourning. How does this work, and how can we protect ourselves from it happening?
The שולחן ערוך – Code of Jewish Law, teaches us of a custom not to get married from Pesach until the 33rd day of the Omer, for during these 33 days Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died. We thus, even today, show our sorrow over the tragic loss of so many great Torah scholars and their Torah, by not marrying, just like someone in mourning. A second mourning law that we observe is the practice of not cutting our hair and not shaving during these 33 days.
These customs present many questions. Why did all of Rabbi Akiva’s students die? What crime did they commit to warrant such a severe punishment? And if they died from having committed a crime, why exactly are we mourning for them? They obviously deserved it.
The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot (62b) reveals the reason behind the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סב/ב
אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר”מ, ור’ יהודה, ור’ יוסי, ורבי שמעון, ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה. תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Antifras to Givat (two cities far from each other) and all of them died in a short period because they did not treat each other with respect. After they died, the world was desolate of Torah, until Rabbi Akiva went to the Sages in the south of Israel, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, who restored the Torah to its glory. We learned: They (the 24,000) all died between Pesach and Shavuot.
So now we know what “crime” caused their death, but this creates an even bigger question: Where does it say that disrespecting another constitutes a capital crime? True, the Torah is very meticulous about how we treat each other and forbids us from speaking Lashon Hara, evil, about another person, or embarrassing another, but it mentions no death penalty. Why did they have to die because of it?
A Midrash provides a deeper understanding of the disrespect that went on between the students.
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה סא פסקה ג
י”ב אלף זוגי תלמידים היו לר”ע מעכו ועד אנטיפרס וכולם בפרק אחד מתו למה שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו באלו ובסוף העמיד שבעה רבי מאיר ורבי יהודה רבי יוסי ור’ שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע ורבי יוחנן הסנדלר ור’ אליעזר בן יעקב ואית דאמרי ר’ יהודה ור’ נחמיה ורבי מאיר רבי יוסי ורשב”י ור’ חנינא בן חכינאי ורבי יוחנן הסנדלר א”ל בניי הראשונים לא מתו אלא שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו לאלו תנו דעתכם שלא תעשו כמעשיהם עמדו ומלאו כל ארץ ישראל תורה
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Acco until Antifras and they all died during a short period because of צרות עין – tzarut ayin, which translates as “narrow eyes,” – In the end, Rabbi Akiva found seven (different than the Talmud) new students, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Nechemia Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, … – Rabbi Akiva said to them, “My sons, the first ones died because they had narrow eyes, be sure not to follow in their ways.” Those new students restored Torah to the whole land of Israel.
The character flaw of “narrow eyes” means that one cannot tolerate that another person has what he has. He wants to be the only one to have it, so that he alone receives all the attention and glory. When someone else takes the limelight for the same thing, he is upset at that person because he feels as if he stole it from him. The students did not appreciate a simple truth: if someone else has what you have, it doesn’t diminish you in any way, as you have lost none of your own greatness.
This seems to present an entirely different reason for the students’ tragic demise. How does this Midrash fit with the quote from the Talmud, which says that they lacked respect for one another?
The Midrash actually provides us with the insight necessary to understand the source of their lack of mutual respect, and, most importantly, why it was fatal.
Although the 24,000 students may have been very knowledgeable in Torah and deeply involved in understanding every nuance of what Rabbi Akiva taught them, their motivation was improper. They were more interested in displaying what great scholars and how erudite they were rather than in the Torah’s truth. This is the problem with aצר עין (a narrow eye) of one who is upset, for example, when his friend says a good dvar Torah, feeling that he has stolen the thunder from him. One who is interested in the truth is excited to learn it no matter who said it. This is why they had no respect for one another: Each of these 24,000 students saw the others as threats to him, to the extent that the better the other person was, the more diminished the first one felt, and the greater the reason to hate him.
Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, is identified as having aטוב עין -a good eye – this translates to someone who wants everyone to have everything that he has. He is supremely happy when others share the wealth that he has. This was the right person to teach Hashem’s Torah to the Jewish people! He wanted them to know everything that he knew!
Rabbi Akiva was a crucial and essential component in the transmission of the Torah from Sinai, and he was destined for this role from Creation.
The Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara (5a) says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ה/א
אמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב ‘זה ספר תולדות אדם וגו” וכי ספר היה לו לאדם הראשון? מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאדם הראשון דור דור ודורשיו דור דור וחכמיו דור דור ופרנסיו. כיון שהגיע לדורו של רבי עקיבא, שמח בתורתו ונתעצב במיתתו
Reish Lakish said: The verse in Genesis 5:1 says: “This is the account of the descendants of Adam…” Did Adam actually have a book to look at? The meaning of this is that Hashem showed Adam each future generation and its teachers, its Sages, and its leaders. When Hashem reached the generation of Rabbi Akiva, Adam rejoiced about Rabbi Akiva’s Torah and was saddened by his death.
The Talmud in Tractate Menachot (29b) tells an even more interesting story about Rabbi Akiva.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף כט/ב
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב”ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות. אמר לפניו, רבש”ע מי מעכב על ידך? אמר לו, אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות. אמר לפניו, רבש”ע הראהו לי! אמר לו, חזור לאחורך. הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים. תשש כחו. כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד, אמרו לו תלמידיו, רבי מנין לך? אמר להן, הלכה למשה מסיני. נתיישבה דעתו.
Rabbi Yehuda quoted Rav: When Moshe went into heaven to receive the Torah, he found Hashem placing crowns on some letters. (in the font of an actual Sefer Torah, seven letters receive crowns – like the fine lines on top of this letter Zayin.)
Moshe asked Hashem, “What are they for?” Hashem told Moshe; “There will be a man after many generations – Akiva ben Yosef – who is destined to derive piles and piles of laws from each of the little lines of these crowns!” Moshe said to Hashem. “Show him to me!” Hashem showed Moshe Rabbi Akiva’s classroom and told him to observe from the back of the room. Moshe went and sat behind the eighth row. Moshe could not understand what they were saying and became nonplussed. Then, a student asked Rabbi Akiva, “What is the source of that law?” When Rabbi Akiva answered, “This is the law as Hashem gave it to Moshe on Sinai.” Moshe became consoled.
The Sages wonder about Moshe’s inability to understand what Rabbi Akiva was saying. How is it possible? Our entire Torah comes from Moshe, and if it didn’t come from Moshe it isn’t Torah! Indeed, our Sages tell us that Hashem taught Moshe the answer to any future question that a student will ask his Rebbi in the classroom, so how could he not understand what Rabbi Akiva was saying?
The short answer is that Moshe Rabbeinu gave us the written Torah. Hashem also taught Moshe the Oral Torah, the details and explanations of the mitzvot – the commandments – that Moshe relayed to the Jewish people as he taught them the Torah. Moshe, however, who received the Torah straight from Hashem, knew the Oral Torah in the context of the Written Torah.
Rabbi Akiva, who was many generations later, had developed methods of teaching the Oral Torah that were suitable and necessary for his and future generations. This is why Moshe could not understand what he was saying. Of course, Moshe knew all the concepts and ideas that Rabbi Akiva was teaching, but he knew them in the form of the written Torah. Now, however, the concepts were being presented in a way that was foreign even to Moshe!
But this was Rabbi Akiva’s greatness, which represented his critical and essential contribution to the Torah. He was uniquely endowed with the ability to transmit the Written Torah with the Oral Torah in a way that was accessible to the future generations. This being what he taught his students, he was the Moshe Rabbeinu for the Oral Torah.
Indeed, the Oral Torah that we have today comes from the five students that Rabbi Akiva taught after the demise of his 24,000 students.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף פו/א
דאמר רבי יוחנן, סתם מתניתין רבי מאיר, סתם תוספתא רבי נחמיה, סתם ספרא רבי יהודה, סתם ספרי רבי שמעון, וכולהו אליבא דרבי עקיבא
Rabbi Yochanan said: The unattributed opinions in the Mishna, are Rabbi Meir. The Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemiah, the Sifra is Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifri is Rabi Shimon, all according to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva. (These four books comprise the core of the Oral Torah. The Talmud comes to explain them)
This is why Adam rejoiced when he saw the Torah of Rabbi Akiva. He saw that Rabbi Akiva’s teachings would secure the holy Torah’s integrity for all future generations.
One would think that, to play such a vital role in the Torah’s transmission, Rabbi Akiva would have been born into the most righteous and pious of families and would have been a child prodigy in his study of Torah. He was not. Rabbi Akiva has a truly remarkable story as related in Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Chapter 6.
אבות דרבי נתן פרק ו
מה היה תחלתו של ר’ עקיבא. אמרו בן ארבעים שנה היה ולא שנה כלום.
What was Rabbi Akiva’s beginning? He was 40 years old and had never learned a word. He did not even know the Hebrew alphabet.
Rabbi Akiva testified about himself, “Before I became a scholar, if you would have shown me a sage, I would have bitten his foot like a donkey.” They asked him, why are you being so specific as to say “like a donkey?” He answered, “I chose the donkey because when a donkey bites, it breaks the bone. That is how much I hated them.”
What made Rabbi Akiva think he could succeed in Torah at the age of 40 years old?
The Avot D’Rabbi Natan relates that Akiva was once standing next to a well when he noticed that a stone had a hole worn through it.
He wondered, “What made that hole in the stone?”
They answered him, “Drops of water bore the hole via dripping on it over many years.”
Rabbi Akiva thought to himself: If the water, which is so soft, could make a hole in a rock, which is so hard, certainly the Torah, whose words are as sharp and penetrating as arrows, will make an impression on my heart, which is so soft.”
In teaching us this story, my teacher, Harav Chaim Kraisworthזצ”ל asked us the following question: “Did the first drop of water to fall on the stone make an impression on it?” Initially we thought, of course not! What could one drop do? But upon thinking a little deeper we had to conclude that it must have made some infinitesimally small difference to the rock, however small and imperceptible. For if the first drop did nothing, the accumulation of millions of such drops would also have accomplished nothing.
This, said my teacher, is what Rabbi Akiva realized. I want to quote Rav Kraisworth’s exact words in Yiddish as they are indelibly etched in my brain: “Nor, iz muz treefen a sach.” “But, it must drip a lot!” Even though we don’t see the impression that the individual words of Torah make on our hearts, as they continue to drip consistently over time the effect upon our souls becomes clear. Rabbi Akiva was up to the challenge of taking it one step at a time, for the long run, and it certainly paid off.
My teacher added another important lesson from this story. “Do you think that Rabbi Akiva was the only person to notice the hole in the stone? Over the many years, many people must have noticed it and marveled at the ability of the soft water to bore a hole in such a hard stone. But Rabbi Akiva was the only one who took it to heart and said to himself, ‘Okay, what’s the lesson? What’s the action item from this phenomenon?’ All other passersby just marveled and went on their merry way without seeking to apply a lesson to themselves.”
What made Rabbi Akiva so special was that he took the lesson deeply to heart and became the Moshe Rabbeinu for the Oral Torah. (This is like Moshe who was the only one to stop and take notice of the burning bush. Many others saw it, but they just kept on walking.)
I shudder to think what Torah would look like today had Rabbi Akiva not made the choice that he did. But we see a remarkable thing: he was created for this mission, as both Adam and Moshe foresaw. Yet he had to make the decision to fulfill that calling. This is the beauty of freedom of choice. Hashem has created each of us with a mission in life and has endowed us with the tools that we need to fulfill that mission. We must, however, make the correct choices to bring us to fulfill that mission, and thus we receive all the credit for having made the proper choices.
Because Rabbi Akiva’s students were to serve as the next link from Sinai to the future generations through Rabbi Akiva, it was imperative that the lines of transmission be perfectly clear so as not to distort the Torah. The 24,000 students who were learning the Torah with improper motivation and were uninterested in the truth for the sake of the truth, could not be that link to the future. Their Torah would have been tainted! They had to be removed to make way for new students to take over.
Rabbi Akiva was well aware of the problem with his students, and he tried everything in his power to try to correct their attitudes and behavior, but the students were not receptive to his efforts. Rabbi Akiva is the one who goes down in history as saying:
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה כד פסקה ז
ר”ע אומר (ויקרא יט) ואהבת לרעך כמוך זה כלל גדול
(Leviticus 19:18) “Love thy fellow as yourself; this is the most important rule in the Torah.”
This is what he was preaching to his students day in and day out. If Rabbi Akiva had not been admonishing them for their inappropriate behavior, they could not be blamed. It would have been his fault for not admonishing them, and he would have been held responsible, not them. He would have been killed first! But he went on to teach new students, and those who refused to change their ways perished.
This is the reason for the mourning. What a tragedy! All the Torah that the 24,000 students would have brought forward was lost on account of that one character flaw. We have what we have from just five students; could you imagine how much Torah there would have been from 24,000?
The students having all died between Pesach and Shavuot suggests a deep connection between their problem and the period in which they died. The days between Pesach and Shavuot were special days of closeness to Hashem because the Jews had so firmly placed their trust in Him. During these days the Jewish people were working on divesting themselves of Egypt’s influence and were growing closer to Hashem in preparation for receiving the Torah. They were purifying themselves of their inappropriate biases and attitudes. They wanted to be the purest receptacles possible so that they could properly receive Hashem’s holy Torah.
This profound lesson is what should have been foremost in the minds of Rabbi Akiva’s students during this time period, and, when it was not, the condemnation was so great that it resulted in their deaths. And even with the constant warning of their great teacher Rabbi Akiva, “Love your fellow as yourself, you must respect one another!” they did not change their ways.
This is a time in our calendar for introspection and correction, something that we also need to be thinking about as we count the Omer every day. As we observe the laws of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, we are reminded of the lesson of why they died specifically during this time. This will help us use these impactful days for our personal growth.