“ואהבת לרעך כמוך. אמר רבי עקיבא: זה כלל גדול בתורה.”
We now find ourselves in the midst of Sefiras HaOmer, during which we mourn the passing of Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 students who died between Pesach and Shavuos, for failing to treat one another with the appropriate respect. The Gemara tells us that after their passing the world was like a barren wasteland, devoid of Torah study, until Rebbe Akiva took under his tutelage a new generation of disciples, who then grew to become the most prominent Sages of the Mishna, the torchbearers of the Oral Tradition of Torah study: R’ Meir, R’ Yehuda, R’ Yossi, R’ Shimon bar Yochai, R’ Elazar ben Shamoa and R’ Nechemia.
The Midrash says that when Rebbe Akiva took these new disciples under his wing, he pleaded with them, “I had 24,000 students, all of whom died for being petty and small-minded towards one another in their Torah studies. Therefore, I bid you not to do the same.” They followed his instructions and went on to fill the entire Eretz Yisrael with the wisdom of the Torah.
It is amazing to consider how such a terrible punishment could have befallen an entire generation of Torah scholars, simply for failing to respect one another. Nowhere in the Torah do we find that this sin is punishable by death. However, “Hashem is exacting with the righteous to the hairbreadth.” He demands from each person the behavior that is appropriate to his spiritual level. In this case, Rebbe Akiva’s talmidim were condemned to death since they had studied under the tutelage of a teacher whose entire message was that of kindness, compassion and respect. He taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the essence of the entire Torah. He also taught that “Precious is man, since he was created in the image of G‑d.” Having heard these lessons from their teacher, but having failed to implement them, the students were held accountable to the strictest measure of justice.
On another level, perhaps we can explain that the disciples did not die as a punishment, per se, but as an unfortunate, unavoidable necessity. Lacking the fine character traits that are the basis of the Torah, these scholars could not serve as the torchbearers to pass the light of Torah on to the next generation. Therefore, there was no choice but to brush them aside to make room for a new generation of scholars who would internalize the essence of the Torah, which is “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and thereby ensure the Torah’s continuation in its most pure and noble form.
Rebbe Akiva’s second generation of talmidim succeeded in this mission, and went on to form the backbone of the Oral Law. So much so, that whenever the Mishna presents a law without mentioning the name of its author, the author was R’ Meir. In Sifra, the author was R’ Yehuda. In Sifri, R’ Shimon. In Tosefta, R’ Nechemia. All of them were among Rebbe Akiva’s latter disciples, who developed these teachings based on the wisdom he had imparted to them, and left them as an eternal inheritance to the entire Jewish people. In contrast, not a single teaching remains as a monument to the 24,000 students who died for failing to show one another the proper respect. Torah study and character refinement are so integrally intertwined that without one there can be no hope of success or permanence for the other.
R’ Akiva’s latter group of disciples internalized his message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” and developed it, each adding his own insights into the application of this most crucial mitzva. The following is a collection of some of their most beautiful teachings.
R’ Meir taught:
כל המברך את ישראל כאלו מברך את השכינה.
Anyone who blesses his fellow Jew is considered as if he has blessed the Shechinah.
He furthermore exhorted us:
והוי שפל רוח בפני כל אדם.
Be of meek and humble spirit before all people.
R’ Yehuda taught:
שכל מי שמקבל פני חברים כאלו מקבל פני שכינה.
Anyone who greets his friends is considered as if he has greeted the Shechinah.
R’ Yossi ben Chalafta, another member of R’ Akiva’s second group of students, once said of himself:
מימי לא עברתי על דברי חברי יודע אני בעצמי שאיני כהן אם אומרים לי חבירי עלה לדוכן אני עולה.
In all my life, I never once disobeyed my peers. I am not a Kohen, yet if my peers would tell me to ascend the platform [to recite the Priestly Blessing] I would do so.
He also taught:
אפילו לא האיר עיניו אלא במשנה אחת זה הוא רבו.
Even if one’s peer has done no more than explain to him a single Mishna, he must honor him like his rebbe.
R’ Shimon bar Yochai taught:
נוח לו לאדם שיפיל עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים.
A person should prefer to be thrown into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass his friend in public.
R’ Elazar ben Shamoa taught:
יהי כבוד תלמידך חביב עליך כשלך וכבוד חבירך כמורא רבך ומורא רבך כמורא שמים.
Let the honor of your students be as precious as your own; the honor of your peers as the reverence of your teacher; and the reverence of your teacher as the awe of Heaven.
R’ Nechemia taught:
בעון שנאת חנם מריבה רבה בתוך ביתו של אדם.
For the sin of senseless hatred, strife abound in the home.
Not only did these students disseminate R’ Akiva’s lesson of “Love your neighbor,” they exemplified it through their own behavior. The Talmud Yerushalmi tells the following story of R’ Meir’s sensitivity to the feelings of others:
רבי מאיר הוה יליף דריש בכנישתא דחמתא כל לילי שובא. והוה תמה חדא איתתא יליפה שמעה קליה. חד זמן עני דריש, אזלת בעית מיעול לביתיה ואשכחת בוצינא מיטפי. אמר לה בעלה “הן הוייתה?” אמרה ליה “מישמעא קליה דדרושא.” אמר לה “מכך וכך דלית ההיא איתתא עללה להכא לבייתה עד זמן דהיא אזלה ורקקה גו אפוי דדרושא.” צפה רבי מאיר ברוח הקודש ועבד גרמיה חשש בעייניה. אמר “כל איתתא דידעה מילחוש לעיינה תיתי תילחוש.” אמרין לה מגירתא “הא ענייתיך תיעלין לביתיך עבדי גרמיך לחשה ליה ואת רקקה גו עייניה.” אתת לגביה אמר לה “חכמה את מילחוש לעיינא?” מאימתיה עליה אמרה ליה לא. אמר לה “ורוקקין בגויה שבע זימנין והוא טב ליה.” מן דרקקת אמר לה “אזלין אמרין לבעליך חד זמן אמרת לי והיא רקקה שבעה זימנין.” אמרו לו תלמידיו “רבי כך מבזין את התורה? אילו אמרת לו לא הווית מייתי ליה ומלקין לה ספסליה ומרציין ומרצייה ליה לאיתתיה.” אמר לון “ולא יהא כבוד מאיר ככבוד קונו מה אם שם הקודש שנכתב בקדושה אמר הכתוב שיימחה על המים בשביל להטיל שלום בין איש לאשתו וכבוד מאיר לא כל שכן.”
R’ Meir would teach a Torah class every Friday night in the Beis HaKnesses of Chamsa, which a certain woman would regularly attend. One time, his class lasted longer than usual and by the time the woman returned home the candles had gone out.
“Where were you?” asked her husband.
“I went to a Torah class,” she answered.
“I swear that you will not enter this house unless you spit into the eye of the lecturer,” he said.
R’ Meir saw all this with his ruach hakodesh. He pretended to have an eye infection, and announced that if anyone knew how to heal it by means of a charm that involves spitting in the eye, they should please do so. The woman’s neighbors heard of this and said to her, “The time has come for you to return home. Recite the charm and spit in his eye.”
When she approached R’ Meir, he asked her if she knew the charm of spitting in his eye, but she was so nervous that she said no. “Then just spit in my eye seven times without reciting the charm,” he said. “That will also work.”
After she did so, he told her, “Go tell your husband that he told you to spit in my eye only once, and you spat seven times.”
When his students learned of this incident, they complained that it was a disgrace to his Torah. “Had you told us of this, we would have seized the husband and beaten him until he took his wife back.”
“Let the honor of Meir be no greater than the honor of his Maker,” he said. “Hashem’s holy Name, which is written in holiness, is erased and scraped into water to make peace between man and wife [as part of the sotah ritual]. How much more so can the honor of Meir be compromised.”
On Lag B’Omer it is customary to celebrate the yahrtzeit of R’ Shimon bar Yochai. Many suggestions are offered to explain why this day is observed with joy and fervor unmatched by any other yahrtzeit. Some answer that on Lag B’Omer R’ Shimon ascended to Heaven in a storm wind. The Chida answer that on Lag B’Omer R’ Akiva began teaching his second group of disciples.
The Meiri answers that on this day, the plague that took R’ Akiva’s first students ceased. The forty-nine days of Sefiras HaOmer correspond to the forty-eight attributes by which the Torah is acquired, as listed in Pirkei Avos, with the final forty-ninth day meant as a review of them all. During each day of the Omer, we prepare ourselves for Kabbalas HaTorah with the attribute that corresponds to that day. The thirty-second day of the Omer corresponds to the thirty-second attribute which is “loving your fellow creations.” When R’ Akiva’s students internalized this important message, the plague stopped the very next day, which was Lag B’Omer.
In our times, we suffer from our own plagues of material and spiritual suffering. Dire threats abound on all sides. We have no solution to avoid these troubles, but to love one another and treat one another with the respect and love deserved by G‑d’s precious children, who were created in His image. The bonds of love that unite Klal Yisrael create an impenetrable barrier to protect us from all misfortune, as our Sages teach, “Peace is so important, that even if Bnei Yisrael were to worship idols but there would be peace among them, no suffering could befall them.”
May we merit to harbor peace and unity in our midst, and may this merit indeed protect us from all misfortune until the arrival of Moshiach, soon and in our days.
 Vayikra 19:18
 Toras Kohanim, Parshas Kedoshim
 Yevamos 62b
 Koheles Rabbah 11:10
 Yevamos 121b
 Pirkei Avos 3:14
 Sanhedrin 86a
 Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 5
 Pirkei Avos 4:10
 Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:15
 Shabbos 118a
 Bava Metzia 33a
 Berachos 43b
 Avos 4:15
 Shabbos 32b
 Talmud Yerushalmi, Sotah 1:4
 Yevamos 62b
 Sifri Bamidbar, 42