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The History of Rabbi Akiva’s Students

By Rabbi Yaakov Rich, Congregation Toras Chaim

The History of Rabbi Akiva's Students 1

Here is a thought…

The period of counting the Omer is also a time of national mourning. The Talmud (Yevamos 62) recounts that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars of the Mishna, lost 24,000 students to plague during this time of year.

Question: Do we think that only the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died that year? That would have been somewhat of an open miracle?!

What is more likely is that there was some type of virus or plague that hit the entire world, and possibly a million, or more, people died. Included in that death toll were Jewish and non-Jewish alike, including the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva.

The Talmud (Yevamos 63) also says “Catastrophe comes to the entire world in order to send a message to the Jewish people.” Our Sages – using their x-ray vision – determined that the plague came to the world – in order to take the lives of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva – because they, the students, did not treat each other with the requisite honor and respect.

Imagine, a plague came to the entire world, took the lives of a million, or more, people (as hypothesized above), all because the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva did not treat each other with respect!

Fast forward to the Coronavirus of 2020.

We, the Jewish people have been losing, r”l, so many of our Gedolim, Torah Sages, to the Coronavirus. Many weeks ago, March 2 to be exact, before the plague hit, Agudas Yisroel issued the following statement:

Every Jew who values Torah and Torah-leaders is appalled and anguished at the spectacle of boorish derision of Gedolei Yisroel in the public sphere.

Torah leaders regularly discuss important issues among themselves, and no less than Gedolei Yisroel from the times of the Tannaim until the present, propose, discuss, and deliberate their sometimes-different views on many matters of concern. Even when they disagree, they do so in a spirit of mutual respect and love.

Presenting – or misrepresenting – the respective views of different Rabbonim or Roshei Yeshiva on important topics, in order to attract attention, gain views or stir uncomprehending people to further disrespect the luminaries of our generation, violates not only our obligation to be mechabed our Gedolim, but their privacy and trust as well. To add unsavory spice to such presentations with words of loshon hora and rechilus about Gedolei Yisroel is nothing short of reprehensible.

Gedolei Yisroel are to be revered, not reviled. And not debated about like sports teams.

The contemporary cultural, media and political spheres have become more degraded than ever, and are rife with falsehood, invective, insult, and irresponsibility. What passes in the world today for “reportage” and “discourse” is diametric to ideals the Torah prescribes, ideals we have upheld since Sinai. The abandonment of those ideals within our own circles in favor of the corrupted attitudes and methods that surround us should pain us all deeply.

May we soon see the day when all Jews stand up proudly for all the principles of our Torah, including the honor and respect we owe to our Gedolim.

Immediately after this plea from our Gedolim “fell on deaf ears” the virus swept the world, and we started to lose, measure for measure, those, who we were disrespecting. No question, the virus took many Jewish and non-Jewish alike, but I cannot help but think that it came for those who we did not deserve because we did not treat them with the requisite honor and respect.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps, it is about time we remember the reason for the viral death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, and start treating our Torah Sages, and each other, with the honor and respect so richly deserved.

May we see a speedy end to this spiritual plague which will lead to an end to this physical plague, and the Geulah Shelaima, the Final Redemption, soon in our days, amein.

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