Parshas Shemini (5772)
The period between the festivals of Passover and Shavuos (The Festival of Weeks) is traditionally known as the Sefirah period. The word sefirah means “counting”, as there is a Biblical commandment (mentioned in Leviticus 23:15-16) to count 49 days starting from the Exodus from Egypt, which took place on Passover, until the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which took place on Shavuos.
During the Sefirah period, in addition to the mitzvah of counting, we observe a period of mourning in which we refrain from weddings, music and haircuts for at least 33 out of the 49 days. This Sefirah mourning period has been the custom of all Israel since the 7th century C.E. The Rabbis tell us the reason for the mourning is that in the second century C.E., about 50 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the great Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 disciples died in a plague over a period of 33 days between Passover and Shavuos.
The death of these 24,000 transmitters of the chain of Torah tradition was certainly a terrible tragedy. But when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple, they murdered far more than 24,000, and when Babylon conquered Jerusalem the first time, they did the same. And yet the traditional mourning period for those tragedies has always been the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av (Tishah B'Av) and the three weeks preceding it.
Why are three weeks before Tishah B'Av sufficient mourning for those many hundreds of thousands of victims, while we mourn 33 days (four and a half weeks) between Passover and Shavuos for the death of 24,000?
The Talmud in Yevamos 62b tells us that the 24,000 disciples died horrible deaths in short order because they didn't show proper respect to each other. It is difficult to understand why the students were punished so severely for such a relatively minor sin. It's not like they were shoving blind men in front of speeding trains or something horrible like that!
The truth is that the national mourning during this time of year (and the reason why we have to put up with these itchy beards) is not just about the loss of life - although that's tragic enough - it's about the loss of Torah and its transmission to the Jewish people as a Divine communication of G-d's will.
You see, these 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva were to transmit the Torah and the Oral Tradition that comes with it to the next generation as the word of G-d that they had received from their master, who in turn had received it from his master all the way back to Sinai. As a matter of fact, the Talmud tells us that after these 24,000 disciples died, the continuity of the Jewish nation, whose lives had always centered around the Torah and its teachings, was in jeopardy until Rabbi Akiva found four new students in a distant land who were deemed worthwhile transmitters of the Torah to the next generation – and that's how the Torah and the Jewish religion managed to continue and to thrive until this very day.
With this new perspective on the role the 24,000 disciples were to play in the transmission of Torah and its ethical value system, we can better understand why these students were punished so severely for not showing proper respect one to another.
For it was absolutely crucial that those Rabbis who were chosen to interpret and safeguard the Torah laws and to transmit them to future generations, would be Torah scholars with impeccable moral and ethical credentials – the kind of Rabbis who, if you took one look at them, you could rest assured that they had no personal agenda whatsoever, and that their only desire was to understand and to protect the word of G-d as reflected in His Torah, and to pass it on to the next generation.
If they were lacking ever so slightly in their respect for each other, or in any other character trait for that matter, the very credibility and authority of the Torah as the word of G-d - and not merely as the human creation of some egotistical Rabbi with an agenda - would be put in question. Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples – great and scholarly as they were – lacked somewhat in their respect for one another, and, by so doing, jeopardized the very integrity and purity of the Torah’s transmission through the generations. And for this, the students were punished in a horrible way, and all the Torah that they could have transmitted was lost to them and to us.
So that what we are really mourning during the Sefirah period is the loss of all that Torah and oral interpretation that these 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva could have transmitted to us, if they had only been worthy.
TAUGHT BY AN ANGEL
The Talmud in Moed Katan 17a states:
“Rabbi Yochanan says: What is the meaning of the text, “For the lips of the Kohein [priest] should safeguard knowledge, and people should seek Torah from his mouth; for he is an angel of G-d, Master of Legions”(Malachi 2:7). [It teaches us that] if a teacher is like an angel of G-d, then seek Torah from his mouth, but if he is not, don’t seek Torah from his mouth.”
What does the Talmud mean that the teacher should be like an angel? Should we be looking for a Rabbi or a Torah teacher who has wings attached on his back and who can fly across the room?
The commentators explain that the heavenly angels have only one desire - to do the will of G-d. That is their essence. They have no hidden agendas. [This concept is used to explain that which it says in the Prophets that the heavenly angels have only one foot. Our two feet represent our conflicting desires – we are often pulled in two different directions. But the angels have only one desire at all times, to do the will of G-d. This also explains why we stand with our feet together as one during the Silent Prayer to try and emulate the angels in their singular devotion to G-d.]
So, too, when we choose a Rabbi or teacher from whom to learn and grow, we should only choose someone with whom we feel absolutely comfortable that he is transmitting the Torah and its values to us to the best of his ability without any personal biases and agendas.
Now even though no human being is totally above all bias, it is not too hard to figure out even today which people are interested in their own honor and opinions, and which are more interested in the truth, whatever it might be. [I believe it was Aristotle who once said of his famous teacher Plato: Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas – “Dear is Plato, but dearer still is truth.”]
If the Rabbi or teacher shows respect for others and their views, and cares more about doing right than being right – then he is truly an “angel” from whom we have much to learn.