The Roots of Disrespect

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


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Dedicated in honor of Rabbi Ronnie and Yael Ziegler by Michael Merdinger and Eliana Megerman

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Shiur #27: The Roots of Disrespect

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

It is told that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gabbath to Antipatris, and they all perished during a single period because they did not act respectfully towards one another. The world was then desolate until R. Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught them - Rabbi Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Yossi, R. Shimon and R. Elazar ben Shamua - and they sustained Torah at that time. It was taught: "They all died between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavuot)." R. Chama bar Abba, and some say R. Chiyya bar Avin, said: "They all died a harsh death." What was it? R. Nachman said: "Croup." (Yevamot 62b)

The basis for our mourning rituals during the omer period lies in this Gemara. The fact that the massacres of the Ashkenazic Jewish communities during the first Crusade occurred during this time period added further impetus to adopt certain practices of mourning (see Arukh Ha-shulchan, O.C. 493:1). This custom yielded a situation where two practices overlap without any apparent connection between them. We fulfill the biblical mitzva of counting the omer as we also mourn the tragedies of this period. The former links the exodus from Egypt with our receiving the Torah at Sinai, and would seem to be a joyous endeavor. The latter, a post-Talmudic custom, clearly assumes a certain sense of sadness. I usually teach my students that these two simultaneous rituals happen to coincide but bear no intrinsic relationship.

Yet, this perhaps misrepresents the situation. R. Akiva's students presumably did not suddenly begin to act poorly in the interpersonal sphere. Rather, this must have unfolded as a gradual process that spanned the calendar year. If so, we can ask why they passed away specifically during the omer period. Obviously, one could say that God had to pick some time for the punishment, and perhaps no specific reason exists. At the same time, some implicit message may indeed lie behind the choice of timing.

Let us also raise a second question. We imagine that Rabbi Akiva emphasized interpersonal decency as a crucial ideal in his yeshiva. How did his students come to stumble in this matter? We could explain that the best efforts of even excellent educators do not always bear fruit, and perhaps the ubiquitous challenges of sheer selfishness or the clash of egos were not met successfully. Alternatively, some deeper flaw in understanding could have generated their behavior.

R. Shmuel Borenstein from Sochatchov was the son of the Avnei Nezer and a grandson of the Kotzker Rebbe. He offers an approach (Shem Mi-shmuel, Emor) that addresses both of our questions and attempts to tie quite a few apparently disparate details together into a unified whole. He postulates that it was not selfishness that led R. Akiva's students astray. Quite the contrary, their teachers had emphasized the goal of unity in their beit medrash and they had internalized that idea to the point where they arrived at a far-reaching conclusion. The students began to view the entire yeshiva as one large, collective entity. If so, there was no point in one student giving another honor. After all, does an individual's leg give credit to his or her arm for a job well done?

This reflects an example of a good idea pushed so far that it turns destructive. Without denying the importance of unity, joint cooperation and a sense of a shared destiny, the individual remains an important category worthy of respect. Indeed, ideological movements that focus only on the collective tend to do terrible things to individuals in their pursuit of communal goals. Communism represents a prime example of this flaw. As the Communists only granted significance to the collective entity, it did not matter how many innocent people were sent to Siberia, as long as the nation collectively moved further towards the realization of its communal utopia. R. Akiva's students did not deteriorate to that extent, but a similar error brought about their downfall.

Why were they punished in between Pesach and Shavuot? The Shem Mi-shmuel argues that this period instructs us about the necessary balance between individualism and collectivism. The astrological sign for Nissan is a sheep. As in the English idiom, "like sheep," this animal symbolizes the collective. Indeed, the historical event of Nissan, the exodus from Egypt, was a grand, collective endeavor that formed Am Yisrael. The astrological sign for Iyar, by contrast, is an ox, which the Shem Mi-shmuel believes emphasizes the individual. Note that no grand, collective events in biblical history ever happened in Iyar. Finally, the sign for Sivan is twins, representing the twin themes of individualism and collectivism. The major historical event of this month also conveys this dialectic. Matan Torah could not occur without the presence of the entire Jewish collective. At the same time, each individual received his personal share in the Torah, and borders divided the place designated for Moshe from that of Aharon, and so on.

The counting of the omer also reveals this theme. Every individual must conduct a personal count, and may not rely on a communal counting by the court. Yet, we each count the identical number each day. The counting of both days and weeks also points to a dual focus on both individual units and collective units. It now becomes clear why R. Akiva's students perished during this part of the year. They had failed to internalize a central message of this period – the need to balance collectivism with individualism.

Another acharon provides a different answer to the question of where these students erred, though without relating to the time of year. R. Chazkel Levenstein was the mashgiach in both the Mir and Ponivezh yeshivot. In his Or Yechezkel (Middot, pp. 21-23), he provides an insightful explanation for the error of R. Akiva's students. Basing himself on the teachings of R. Isaac Blazer, the foremost disciple of R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Chazkel notes an interesting moral asymmetry often reflected in people's attitudes. Namely, we often have the tendency to evaluate certain traits differently when applying them to ourselves, and when applying them to others.

For example, bitachon represents a significant ideal. At times, a person must tell himself or herself not to lose heart but rather maintain faith that Hashem will provide succor. However, we should be quicker to employ this concept regarding our own problems than when approaching the trials confronted by others. If we see a person in distress, we should make great efforts to help him without preaching to him about the virtues of bitachon. The same principle applies to perishut. Without entering into the question of the place of asceticism in our tradition, there are times when we need to desist from our pursuit of physical indulgence. Again, we should be quicker to apply this principle to ourselves than to others. I should not justify my not offering you dessert on the grounds that I am working to enhance your quality of perishut.

Finally, this ideal applies to honor, as well. On a personal level, I should not pursue honor and public recognition. However, I should not withhold honor from another person on the grounds that honor is religiously problematic. Herein, Rav Chazkel claimed, lies the mistake of R. Akiva's students. They had heard many talks denigrating the pursuit of honor and they decided that this ideal mandates withholding honor from others, as well. This flawed conclusion drawn from the ideal of turning away from recognition resulted in their improper treatment of one another.

What causes this asymmetry? One could suggest that we are suspicious of a 's motives. Those withholding honor or pleasure from others may be cloaking their selfishness in a veneer of religious idealism. It may be that things we usually enjoy, such as honor and gratification, tend to become excessive when applied to ourselves. When applied to others, we find the ability to portion these things out in the right measure.

I find it striking that both the Shem Mi-shmuel and R. Levenstein focus on positive religious concepts that the students extended too far. This reveals that almost any positive value can be applied disproportionately, to the point where it becomes problematic. It also reveals that good intentions are not sufficient for producing interpersonal excellence. Authentic understanding must guide the good intentions along to find the proper way of treating ourselves and others.