I’ve heard fifteen different opinions of why Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed. One of them is that they had sinas chinam – which I don’t understand. That 24,000 of them all made the same mistake, that doesn’t go into my mind! Now, what’s your answer? Was it sinas chinam or something else? And was it all the 24,000? Every one of them?
You’re asking properly. Now, it’s not easy for me to answer a question of such importance, but I’ll attempt a little bit of an answer.
Whether all 24,000 died or not, I wouldn’t say. I’m not able to tell you. We know that he had disciples from way back so probably it means the majority.
According to one tradition they died as a punishment because of insufficient regard for each other’s dignity. Not sinas chinam, but לא נהגו כבוד זה לזה – They didn’t treat each other with the proper amount of respect (Yevamos 62b). But you have to know that when such things are said in our seforim, they are said in a sublimated sense. It means like this: Hakodosh Boruch Hu wasn’t satisfied with Rabbi Akiva’s accomplishment. He accomplished 24,000 disciples and they were all great in Torah, but some of them hadn’t commensurately developed in greatness of character. Some of them hadn’t achieved perfection in character corresponding to their perfection in Torah greatness.
Now, had we had any one of them today, he would be chief Rabbi not only of New York City, he would be chief Rabbi of the world. Any one of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim would be big enough to be Rav Hakollel for the whole world – and a good Rav Hakollel. But as talmidim of Rabbi Akiva they were not good enough because Hakodosh Boruch Hu requires derech eretz before Torah and He requires good middos in a very high degree of perfection. And because they were found wanting according to the supreme standards of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, that’s why they were punished.
That was some of them – the others were good ones but they were punished because they should have reacted when they saw the failings of their peers and they should have protested if they saw some lack of derech eretz. And therefore, Hakodosh Boruch Hu decided to wipe them out and let Rabbi Akiva start anew. And he began anew with a new generation of talmidim and they were the perfect men.
But if they were so great, how can they make such a big aveirah?
People can be great in Torah and also great in character, but their greatness in character sometimes doesn’t keep step with their progress in Torah. And therefore, a man has to know – with every page of gemara he learns, he has to become better and better. He cannot remain the same in character if he’s going to make progress in Torah.
And they made so much progress in Torah, but their progress in good character, although there was progress – was not enough. It was not enough. That’s the best I can tell you.
So they would have been better off with good derech eretz and not talmud Torah k’neged kulam?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Slabodka Yeshiva, there was a man who came over to the Rosh Yeshiva and he said like this: “Look,” he said, “If Torah imposes such responsibilities on you, it’s better not to know any Torah.”
So the Rosh Yeshiva said, “You know, a human being has more responsibilities than a cow. Which do you want to be? Would you rather be a cow?”
A cow has no responsibilities but nobody would choose to be a cow. And therefore, we have to try to grow great in Torah. And at the same time we have to watch our step and make progress in decency, in derech eretz, in kindliness and in all good qualities, because we have to know that once we assume the yoke of Torah, then the yoke of derech eretz is going to be just as heavy upon us.
TAPE # 30 (June 1974)