A Lesson for the Omer — Rav Yonatan Horovitz Although Lag Ba’Omer has passed, we still find ourselves in the mourning period of the Omer. Based on the differing customs, many people have completed the formal aspects of this mourning period, but the time during which the students of Rabbi Akiva died of a plague is depicted in the Gemara (Yevamot 62b) as falling between Pesach and Shavuot and it is therefore appropriate to discuss the events of this stage in the Jewish calendar. One of the most obvious questions about these tragic events, the loss of so many scholars over such a short time span, relates to the reason given for their untimely death. The Gemara relates that they were punished because “lo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh – they did not afford each other due respect”. How could it be that the students of Rabbi Akiva, the same Rav who stated that “veahavta lere’acha kamocha, to love one’s neighbor as oneself is a fundamental principle of the Torah, erred in this very area? Surely, if this was the issue that Rabbi Akiva chose to stress, his students would have internalized his message and acted accordingly. We will suggest several answers in an attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction. First of all, let us propose a technical solution. It could be that as a result of what happened to his students, due to their incorrect behavior in the interpersonal realm which led to the awful plague, Rabbi Akiva realized that the focus of his teachings needed to be reevaluated. He came to the conclusion that the importance of limmud torah and avodat Hashem had been advocated at the expense of the “bein adam lechavero” aspects of the Torah. He therefore decided to raise a new banner, that of love of one’s fellow man, in the hope that the balance would be shifted and in future generations respect between man and his friend would become commonplace. A second proposal is found in the Shem Mishmuel, by the Rebbe of Sochachov who lived at the end of the 19th century. (This explanation is quoted in a short article written by my friend Rav Yitzchak Blau.) He writes that Rabbi Akiva’s students did indeed internalize the principal so emphasized by their revered teacher. They did so to the extent that they created a sense of unity in their Bet Midrash such that the individual entity was all but lost. They acted as if they were one body in which the arm does not necessarily thank or demonstrate respect towards the leg. In other words, the concept of achdut was taken too far. There existed a misunderstanding of the notion of “veahavta lereacha kamocha” to the point where the uniqueness of each individual was swallowed up by the whole. In this sense,”lo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh”. This idea finds a parallel in this week’s parsha, Bamidbar. Hashem commands Moshe to count Bnei Yisrael. The result is a list summarizing the number of men in each tribe and subsequently in the entire nation. Several explanations have been offered by the commentaries as to the reason for this census but one notion remains a constant. Any form of counting is performed in order to attain a final number, a summation of all the objects counted. We therefore wonder why the Torah instructs Moshe to count Am Yisrael “bemispar sheimot, by the number of names”, as opposed to simple stating the people should be counted. A name represents everything that is unique about a person. Each man is not simply one more in a long list of people but rather an individual with his own character and traits. A name means someone with a past on which he reflects and a future about which he dreams. A name is something special, belonging only to its owner. Hashem instructs Moshe that in counting Bnei Yisrael, emphasis must still be placed on each individual. The nation is comprised of hundreds of thousands of different people, each with a unique character, and each with a special contribution to be made to that entity called Am Yisrael. Returning to the students of Rabbi Akiva, we suggest a third answer to the question posed above. Let us assume that Rabbi Akiva’s students understood the mitzvah of “veahavta lereacha kamocha” and acted in accordance with this principle. But how is this mitzvah fulfilled? There appears to be a dispute among the mefarshim as to whether this is a precept based on an emotional requirement or rather one which has practical ramifications. Ramban (Vayikra 19:18) seems to suggest that the mitzvah refers to how one relates to the lives of one’s peers. One should rejoice in their successes and lament in their failures. One should constantly hope that all those around us thrive and achieve whatever they themselves would hope for. Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvat Aseh 219)on the other hand, suggests that this mitzvah is a form of umbrella command which encompasses all the interpersonal mitzvoth such as visiting the sick, tzedaka, hospitality and other similar mitzvoth. According to the Chinuch, “veahavta lereacha komacha” is fulfilled by performing all the other “bein adam lechavero” mitzvoth to the best of our ability. The common thread found in these two explanations is that the mitzva relates to the everyday, almost mundane world. The commentators do not refer to how one would follow this principle if one is immersed in a life of limmud torah. It is possible that Rabbi Akiva’s students performed all the interpersonal mitzvoth with great zeal but this did not affect how they acted within the walls of the Bet Midrash. The sixteenth century commentator, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, known as the MaHarsha, writes on the Gemara in Yevamot that the students of Rabbi Akiva did not concern themselves with the respect for the Torah of their peers. Based on his understanding that the word kavod refers to respect for the Torah, MaHarsha suggests that their error lay in their attitude of disrespect to each others learning. This supports our suggestion that whilst they acted in accordance with the strict letter of the law in regards to the realm of interpersonal mitzvoth, Rabbi Akiva’s students acted incorrectly in their pursuit of excellence in Torah scholarship. What could not respecting each other’s Torah actually mean? There is a well known statement of Chazal “kol haomer davar beshem omro mevi geula leolam, anyone who quotes a statement in the name of he who said it, brings redemption to the world”. In the realm of all academic scholarship, including the world of limmud Torah, an original thought is something to be cherished. Whether it be an article published in a prestigious magazine or a chiddush formulated in a shiur, the proposal of a new idea reflects well on the author and accords him great honor and respect. But, if such admiration is achieved when someone else really deserves the credit, it is not merely disrespect to the peer, it is morally repugnant. It is possible that it is this form of respect which was lacking in the Bet Midrash of Rabbi Akiva. Furthermore, the requirement is to use the name of the original proponent of the statement. By doing so, we then emphasize the uniqueness of this person as discussed above regarding the idea that the name reflects the intrinsic nature of each person. Chazal take this concept a stage further. When we quote a statement in the name of he who originally stated it, we are demonstrating our own humility and showing respect to our fellow humans. By doing so, we fulfill, to some extent, a further aspect of “veahavta lereacha kamocha” thereby increasing a sense of camaraderie in the world. This will ultimately lead to redemption. [It is worth noting that a good portion of the Gemara is comprised of attributing a particular statement to its original proponent. On occasions, the Gemara will discuss opposing opinions as to where the statement originated. Based on what is written above, these deliberations become more relevant and send a clear message to all students of Talmud.] Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan Comments and questions are welcome at email@example.com.