Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)
Efrat, Israel – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18).
One of the most oft-quoted verses of the Bible appears in this week’s Torah reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord” (Lev.19:18). In fact, one of the towering figures of the Oral Law, the famed Rabbi Akiva, referred to this commandment with the addendum: “this is the great rule of the Torah” (zeh klal gadol baTorah), (Rashi, ad loc) which I take to mean that this is the commandment which is the goal of all other commandments, the “meta-halakhic” principle which lies behind the other commandments; the end-goal towards which all other commandments must lead us. Indeed, if the very God definition which we humans can comprehend is “Lord of love, Lord of love, Compassionate and Freely Giving G-d, Long-Suffering, Full of Loving Kindness and Truth,” (Ex. 34: 6) and if the central commandment of the Torah is “Thou shalt walk in His (Divine) ways,” (Deut. 28:9) then the unifying principle of all of our actions and emotions must be, “Just as He is loving, compassionate and freely-giving so must we humans be loving, compassionate and freely-giving;” in other words, we must love our neighbor as ourselves if we wish in any way to emulate the Divine. (See Rambam, Hilchot De’ot, 1: 11)
But one of the mysteries of the life and teaching of Rabbi Akiva is that this very same commandment, which was so cardinal for him, came back to haunt him. The Talmud records that between the period of Passover and Lag B’omer (fifteen days before Shavuot), twelve – thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died. Indeed, it is because of their death that these weeks have become a season of semi-mourning for observant Jews, with weddings, hair-cuts and group festivities absolutely forbidden at this time. And when the Talmudic Sages query as to why such Torah scholars met such a premature demise during such a concentrated period, the response is “because they did not treat each other with proper respect;” in other words, they did not properly keep the commandment to love your neighbor like yourself (B.T. Yebamot 62b)! Could it be that the great master’s disciples failed to internalize the major teaching of their Rebbe? If indeed Rabbi Akiva began to emphasize this command only after the tragedy befell his students, it may be understandable; but it is difficult to imagine that such a Torah giant would have grasped the central significance of this cardinal commandment only at the end of his life!
I believe that the answer to the mystery may be found upon a deeper examination of the circumstances surrounding the death of the 24,000 students. After the Talmud records the time-frame of their demise – from Passover until fifteen days before Shavuot – Rabbi Nahman adds that the immediate cause of their death was “askera,” a foreign word which Rashi defines as diphtheria – whooping cough, a plague (B.T. Yebamot, ibid). However, we have no corroborating evidence, either from a parallel Talmudic passage or from the period – historian Josephus, that a plague broke out at this time; moreover, it is difficult to imagine a malady which only affected the students of one particular master!
Rav Hai Gaon maintains that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students were killed not in a plague but rather in the Bar Kochba Rebellion. Approximately sixty-five years after the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Roman government, Rabbi Akiba accepted the possibility that Shimon bar Kochba was the long-awaited Messiah-King of Jewish redemption, and urged the Judeans to wage a war of independence against Rome; indeed, he organized what was in effect the first Yeshivat Hesder in history. It makes eminently good sense that in the massive defeat of Bar Kochba’s legions, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples lost their lives. It is also quite possible that Rabbi Nahman’s askera might come from the Greek sicarii, which means “by the sword”! Hence, it was not a plague but rather a War of Independence against Rome which claimed the lives of so many of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
There remains one more piece to this puzzle. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai was one of the teachers of Rabbi Akiva – and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai had prescribed accommodation with Rome sixty-five years earlier just prior to the Temple’s destruction. Indeed, it was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who went out to meet Vespasian, the Roman General, and made the deal of giving up Jerusalem in return for the city of Yavneh and her wise men (Gittin 56a).
One version of the Talmud records that Rabbi Akiva vehemently disagreed with the “dovish” approach of his Rebbe; the disciple is even cited as having criticized his teacher by quoting a prophetic verse which he claimed referred to Rabbi Yohanan: “Sometimes wise men are turned backwards and their wisdom is transformed into foolishness” (Isaiah 44:25).
Undoubtedly, Rabbi Akiva was a great idealist who believed passionately in Jewish national sovereignty over Israel and Jerusalem. But – at least according to this version of the Talmud – the heat of the moment caused him to speak in less than respectful terms concerning a leading Jewish Scholar and one of his foremost teachers. Can it be that Rabbi Akiva’s own disciples learned not from what their Rabbi taught as much as from what their Rabbi said – and so they too did not speak respectfully to each other, especially when they had differing political views even amongst themselves. We see from here the awesome responsibility of a Rebbe. And we also see how the beginning of the end of any national uprising or even defensive war is when the people supposedly on the same side deflect their energy away from the enemy and towards their own internal dissensions; this is the causeless hatred which has always caused Israel to miss our chance for redemption!