Parashat Balak concludes with the tragic story of Ba’al Pe’or, where the nation of Moav sent its women to lure the men of Benei Yisrael into illicit relationships and to worship the Moavite idol, Pe’or. After Moav hired Bilam to place a curse on Benei Yisrael, which he proved unable to do, Bilam advised Moav to arouse God’s anger upon His nation by luring them to sin, and this scheme succeeded. God was incensed at Benei Yisrael, and 24,000 people died in a plague.
Kabbalistic teaching draws an association between these 24,000 sinners, who succumbed to the lures of Moav, and the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva who, as the Gemara famously relates (Yevamot 62b), died in a plague “because they did not treat one another with respect.” These 24,000 scholars who perished in a plague are seen as paralleling the 24,000 members of Benei Yisrael were killed in a plague for their involvement with the women and religion of Moav. Rav Menachem Azarya de Fano, in his Asara Ma’amarot (Eim Kol Chai, 3), writes that Rabbi Akiva’s students were the “gilgulim” (reincarnated souls) of the 24,000 people who perished during the incident of Ba’al P’eor. They were to have rectified the sin of Pe’or, and they would have succeeded if they had not made the mistake of disrespecting each other.
How might we explain this connection between the sin of Ba’al Pe’or and Rabbi Akiva’s students?
The sin of Ba’al Pe’or marked a grave failure to withstand the pressure of foreign influence. After living generally in isolation over the course of their travels in the wilderness, Benei Yisrael conquered the Emorite territory and now resided in the populated region of Trans-Jordan, where they were, for the first time, exposed to other nations. We might also add the Midrashic tradition – cited by Rashi in Parashat Chukat (21:1) – that after Aharon’s passing, the miraculous “clouds of glory” which had encircled Benei Yisrael disappeared, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. This might mean that as Benei Yisrael’s period of desert travel came to an end, they were no longer shielded and protected from foreign influence. They were now engaged in and involved with other peoples, with the expectation that they would remain firmly loyal to their values and lifestyles despite foreign influence. At Ba’al Pe’or, the people failed in this regard, yielding to the cultural and religious influence exerted by their new neighbors, Moav.
Rabbi Akiva lived and worked in the time of fierce Roman oppression, ultimately being executed for insisting on teaching Torah in violation of the edicts issued by Hadrian following the Bar-Kokhba revolt. Rabbi Akiva and his students rectified the sin of Ba’al Pe’or by showing courageous, fierce devotion to God and to Torah in the face of intense pressure. Whereas the people in the time of Ba’al Pe’or easily fell prey to external lures, the scholars in Rabbi Akiva’s time heroically resisted the pressure exerted by the Roman Empire, committing themselves tirelessly to Torah scholarship despite Rome’s efforts to stop them.
However, despite this heroism, Rabbi Akiva’s students were punished for failing to treat other properly. Torah devotion may never justify arrogance, conceit, or disregard for one’s fellowman. These 24,000 students succeeded in correcting the mistake of Ba’al Pe’or, in showing firm commitment to Torah in the face of pressure, but it seems that this lofty objective led them to overlook their basic interpersonal obligations to one another. Their failure reminds us that striving to be great does not excuse our failure to be good, that our pursuit of outstanding achievement must never get in the way of our basic, elementary requirement to be nice, humble, kind and sensitive to other people.