Learning by the numbers: What Rabbi Akiva’s students teach us today

Rabbi James Gordon

By Rabbi James Gordon, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Emor — Leviticus 21:1−24:23

One of the highlights of Parashat Emor is a recitation of all of the Moadim (appointed times) ordained in the Torah: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret.

Emor is also the source of the Mitzvah of S’firat HaOmer (Counting the Omer):

U-S’fahrtem lakhem mi-mawcharat ha-Shabbat mi-yom haviakhem et Omer Ha-T’nufa sheva Shabbatot t’mimot tih’yena ahd mi-mawcharat ha-Shabbat ha-sh’viit tisp’ru chamishim yom v’hik’ravtem Mincha chadasha la-Hashem

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the rest day (i.e., the first day of Passover) from the day that you bring the Omer of Waving seven complete weeks until the day after the seventh week (i.e., Shavuot), fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem (Leviticus 23: 15-16).”

Today, we fulfill this Mitzvah by counting each of the 49 nights beginning with the second (Seder) night of Pesach until Shavuot.

For more than 1,000 years, this was a period of festivity in the Jewish calendar as we celebrated the Almighty’s bounty. In about 135 C.E., this season of joy was transformed into a period of national mourning.

What event triggered this transformation?

According to the Talmud (Y’vamot 62b) and the Midrash (B’risheet Rabba 61:3), with the exception of five or seven men, all of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished during this seven week period.  The deaths ceased on the 33rd day/18 Iyar (Lag B’Omer).

According to the Talmudic account Akiva had 24,000 students, while per the Midrash his students numbered “only” 12,000.  The exact cause and reasons behind their deaths vary.

  • According to Y’vamot 62b, they died because they did not treat each other with respect (“Sh’lo nahagu kavod zeh la-zeh”). When commenting on the Talmudic cause of death, the Maharsha (1555-1632), elucidates further that the students spoke Lashon HaRa against one another, speaking in a shameful manner.  The disease from which they died was askara (croup).    
  • B’resheet Rabba states that they treated each other with jealousy (Sh’hay’ta eineihem tzara ehlu v’ehlu).  Kohelet Rabba, explains that Rabbi Akiva’s students were so competitive with one another that they refused to share their chidushim (novel intellectual/textual insights) with one another.                              
  • Some say that the students’ deaths were not caused by a spiritual shortcoming, but rather, they were soldiers in the army of Bar Kokhva and were killed in battle.   (One of the downfalls of Rabbi Akiva is that he supported Bar Kokhva’s ill-fated rebellion against the Romans, even proclaiming that Bar Kokhva was the Mashiach).

In last week’s (second) Torah portion (Parashat K’doshim) we read the source of the Mitzvah known as Ahavat Yisrael (Loving Your Fellow Jew):  “V’ahavta l’reakha kamokha – – You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).”

In addition to the Sage Hillel who stated that the essence of the entire Torah is that particular Mitzvah (B.T. Shabbat 31a), a second documented advocate for this Mitzvah was Rabbi Akiva:  “Amar Rabbi Akiva: Zeh k’lal gadol ba-Torah  – – “[regarding the Mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael] Rabbi Akiva stated:  ‘This is a great principle in the Torah (Sifre).’”

What seems particularly ironic about this statement is that, if Rabbi Akiva was such a big promoter of the Mitzvah of Loving Your Fellow Jew, then what happened?  What went wrong? After all, with the exception of being military casualties, all of the interpretations provide that Rabbi Akiva’s (thousands of) students didn’t grasp their teacher’s mantra.  After all, they treated one another with utter disrespect!

This begs the following two questions: When did Rabbi Akiva make this statement? And what prompted him to make it?   Did he make this proclamation after his students perished?  If so, perhaps he was saying something to the effect of, “I took on more than I could handle.  Instead of focusing on being a national leader, I should have spent more time on the campus of my yeshiva dealing directly with my students and the members of my faculty.”  (As a side bar, to fit 24,000 people in one lecture hall, I imagine that Rabbi Akiva had a yeshiva campus similar to that of a contemporary university campus that included a “classroom” the size of a small professional baseball/football stadium).  

Had Rabbi Akiva made this declaration before his students perished, this disconnect was an even greater tragedy.  After all, Akiva clearly articulated the primary goal of Jewish education and then failed to transmit this essential lesson to his disciples.  

This sad story ends with a relatively optimistic ending.  Rabbi Akiva refused to allow himself to be paralyzed by his tragic mistake.  Instead he went to a small group of his students in the South (ba-Darom) who survived and taught them Torah.  B’reheet Rabba records that he sternly warned these (seven) students not to repeat, but, rather, to learn from the mistakes of their colleagues who perished.  One of these students was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar. Baruch Hashem, they heeded their beloved Rabbi’s advice, and, once again, the Jewish people survived in spite of experiencing another devastating, tragic loss.

Among the lessons we learn from Rabbi Akiva and his students include: (1) Even Jewish leaders are human and commit (sometimes huge) errors in judgment; (2) While the future of Jewish survival (and “sur-thrival”=thriving) depends greatly on sustained Jewish learning, we must not lose sight of the forest for the trees; and (3) We must not be frozen by our mistakes, but instead learn from and correct them.  

While enjoying a haircut, wedding, barbeque, bonfire (in commemoration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s yahrtzeit) and other festivities on Lag B’Omer (Sunday, May 14) it is important to remember and internalize all of the lessons that we learn from the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi James M. Gordon is the assistant rabbi of Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation A.G. Beth Israel (Traditional-Orthodox) in Lincolnwood.

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