Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

Dedicated לזכר נשמת Yisroel Janowski,  ישראל יצחק אליקים בן איתמר יעקב  ז״ל, who accomplished so much good in the so short period of time allotted to him in this world.

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That seven-week period, stretching from Pesach to Shavuos, is when Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand students died, 1900 years ago. Those deaths, as we famously read, were divine retribution because those students: “didn’t honor one another.”[1]

We still mourn those deaths by not marrying, by not taking haircuts and by not engaging in other celebratory acts during this period.[2]

Sefira, though, isn’t only about mourning.

Sefira also has a celebratory component. That celebratory component is mentioned in our parsha, where we read that sefira recalls the seven weeks that were counted “from the day after the Pesach”[3] until Matan Torah on Shavuos.

That count was celebratory for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a count towards the miracles and the magnificence of Matan Torah. Secondly, that count bridged the span that separated the Yomim Tovim of Pesach and Shavuos. Bridges that link Yomim Tovim, like the Chol HaMoed that links the first and the last days of Pesach and of Sukkos, are Yomim Tovim themselves. [4]

Yes, we see this melding of agony and of ecstasy – and we wonder.

First, we wonder about the agony

These students died only because they “didn’t honor one another?”[5] Such “not honoring” was reason enough for death?

And what about the collateral damage?

These students were that generation’s aggregate of Torah leadership. Their deaths, therefore, denuded that generation of almost all Torah knowledge. So much so, that their deaths left Rabbi Akiva with only five students.[6]

And so much of that lost Torah was irretrievable!

This tragedy, after all, occurred early in our history, well before the oral Torah had been written down. Being unwritten, that oral Torah could only be preserved by recording and sharing “memory.” “Memorizers” memorized sections of the oral Torah which they then transmitted on to students who, in turn, memorized and then transmitted their “memories” on to their own students.

Those deaths of those students – those “bearers of memory” – deprived us of so much Torah memory.

Yes, we wonder about that agonizing loss of leadership and of knowledge.

And we wonder why sefira’s message about Matan Torah, its ecstasy, is – seemingly – obscured by its mourning.

Why should Matan Torah’s miracles and magnificence obscured?

The answer to these questions is multi-level.

Firstly, we can assume that Rabbi Akiva’s students – who didn’t even “honor” their peers! - wouldn’t have respected whatever students that they taught.

That new generation of students would have felt their teachers’ lack of respect. Those feelings would have caused the new students to withdraw – and to not  absorb any learning –  from teachers who disrespected them.

The deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students then - because those students’ teachings weren’t being absorbed - may not have caused such a loss of Torah.

And if some Torah was, indeed, lost, that loss may have been for the best.

Why would that loss have been for the best?

Because these students -  as evidenced by them “not honoring one another” - had bad character. That bad character must have tainted their Torah. Hashem may not have wanted that tainted Torah be taught and be transmitted into our mesorah.

Hashem may have, therefore, prevented that transmission by cutting Rabbi Akiva’s students down before they taught much Torah.

Those students, then, weren’t "punished” with death for sinning by “not honoring” – that sin, as noted before, was not a death penalty crime.

They died, rather, to prevent them from transmitting tainted Torah.

This also explains why these deaths occurred during sefira. Sefira, when we prepare for Matan Torah, is the right time to “purge” Torah of all taints.[7]

This also demonstrates that sefira’s mourning – which reminds us that Torah must be respectful – doesn’t obscure its message about Matan Torah.[8]

Sefira then, even its mourning aspects, is about Matan Torah.

This is as much about us, as it is about Rabbi Akiva’s students.

This is about our realizing that a disrespectful chinuch, one encased in insults and anger - like those students’ disrespectful Torah – is tragic.

It’s tragic when our disrespect prevents our children from absorbing our chinuch.

And it’s more tragic when our disrespect doesn’t prevent our children from absorbing our chinch.

Why is that more tragic? Because their acceptance of disrespectful chinuch, indicates that they’ve been taught that disrespectful discourse is acceptable.

Once they accept that, they will bring such disrespect to their marriages, to their parenting and to their relationships with us, their parents.

Yes, we’re very much like Rabbi Akiva’s students.

With those students, an absence of Torah was better than a flawed Torah.

With us, too, an absence of chinuch is better than a bad chinuch.

An absence of chinuch means that nothing good – but nothing bad – happens.

Flawed chinuch means that nothing good – but so much bad – happens.

Let’s remember that when we next consider encasing chinuch in disrespect.

Rabbi Weber, founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey is Rabbi Emeritus of Toronto’s Clanton Park Synagogue. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim. Rabbi Weber will be scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Hotel for Shavuos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000.

[1] Yevamos 62b

[2] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 693:1-2

[3] Vayikra 23:15

[4] Ramban, Vayikra 23:36

[5] Yevamos 62b

[6] Ibid.

[7] Aniyim la-Mishpat ad. loc

[8] Ibid.

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