The death of the students of Rabbi Akiva plays a paramount role in our lives during this Sefirah period. The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) notes that there were 12,000 pairs of students and all died from a plague that occurred at this time because they did not demonstrate respect toward one another.
I am constantly mystified at this text of the Talmud. After all, we are dealing with the lives of great people. How could it be that great people lacked the basic human dignity from one to another in such a wide scale? Moreover, they were all students of Rabbi Akiva. Where was he during this time? Why didn’t he admonish the students and convince them not to behave in this manner so as to save their own lives?
The great Gaon Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman Shlita cited the Yirushalmi (Nedarim 9:4) in the context of an interesting answer. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Akiva who notes that loving one’s fellow man is a Klal Gadol BaTorah (THE guiding principle in the Torah). Ben Azzai notes that “Zeh Sefer Toras Haadam” (This is the book of man—a different Possuk) is the guiding principle of the Torah. Is Ben Azzai explaining or enhancing Rabbi Akiva’s answer or is he disagreeing with it? What is gained from Ben Azzai’s verse?
HaRav Bergman noted that when Rabbi Akiova noted that V”Ahavta is the Klal Gadol, he was noting that the obligation to love each individual member of Klal Yisrael comes from the Mitzvah of V’Ahavta. Ben Azzai notes that the obligation should come from the fact that each human being is a Tzelem Elokim (creation of Hashem). Ben Azzai is noting that one should respect a person for being a person irrespective of whether there is a specific commandment to do so.
HaRav Eliyahu Schlessinger (Eleh Heim Moadai III:691) noted that this issue is apparent in the structure of the Possukim of Parshas Emor. At the end of the Parsha we read of the one who cursed Hashem. Moshe receives word from Hashem that he is to be stoned. But before the death penalty is carried out, the Torah goes off to discuss the rights of dignity of man. Rav Schlessinger notes that in all other contexts this deviation from the main issue – degrading Hashem – would be odd. However, since the dignity of man is part of the dignity of Hashem, these issues are merged.
The students of Rabbi Akiva knew what man was and the dignity that man deserved. It was this respect that was highlighted in their lectures and talks from their Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva. However, the respect deserved to each man’s partner as a true Talmid Chacham, a respect that surpasses the respect of basic Kavod HaBriyos, was lacking. It was for this, that they received the sentence.
Rava (Makos 22b) notes that people are foolish when they stand for a Sefer Torah but not for a Talmid Chacham. The Talmid Chacham is a living example of Torah – and a source of inspiration to us all.