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Rabbi Akiva’s students died when they failed to heed his core teaching.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion in Israel is “Kedoshim” (19:1-20:27) and it “coincidentally” (of course there’s no such thing as coincidences!) is also relevant to the period on the calendar we find ourselves in.

We are currently in the period between Passover and Shavuot, a fifty-day period known as “the Omer.” It is primarily infamous as a period of mourning. Indeed, haircuts are not taken, weddings are not held, and live music is not played, among other restrictions.

This period of mourning is primarily to recall the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. It was during these fifty days that virtually the entire group was killed by a mysterious “plague.”

The question is asked: what is so special about the death of Rabbi Akiva’s student that we need fifty days of mourning?

There are certainly more intense tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people that are not observed with any mourning practice — but the death of some yeshiva students?

What is it about the students of Rabbi Akiva that they merit their own period of mourning?

It’s explained that the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students occurred because “they didn’t treat one another with proper respect.” Hence, this was considered to be a very different and unique disaster.

And this brings us to the connection with this week’s Torah portion.

One of the many commandments in the Torah portion is : “V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha,- You shall love your fellow as you love yourself, I am God” (Lev. 19:18). Rabbi Akiva coined the micro-commentary on this verse when he famously taught, “this is a fundamental principle in the Torah” meaning that loving others as you love yourself is the foundation for every other mitzva in the Torah.

Rabbi Akiva’s students where very different people one from the other.

And, as our sages say, “As different as each face is from another, so too are people’s minds and attitudes different from one another” which means that just like faces are different so too are opinions, ideas, and interpretations. As such, every time Rabbi Akiva gave a teaching, 24,000 different interpretations ensued!

But here was the problem: Every student felt that he was right, and every other student was wrong. Multiply that by 24,000, and you have a very tense classroom! They had no regard or respect for the opinions of their fellow students, and by extension they “forgot” their Rabbi’s teaching of the importance of “loving one’s fellow as one loves oneself.”

That’s why a plague struck and killed almost all of them.

The lesson is clear. It is okay to favor our own views and opinions over those of others. But we must remember to respect those who we disagree with. It is important for us to internalize the lesson and message as we count each day in preparation for Shavuot, the holiday we received the Torah whose “fundamental principle” is loving and respecting others…even if we disagree!