How should we understand the sins of the students of Rabbi Akiva that caused so many thousands of them to die?
There’s a certain tradition that in the time of sefirah many talmidim of Rabbi Akiva perished by a plague. And we have a tradition that it was because לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה – they didn’t treat each other with respect. So I’ll explain this to you. The Jewish nation is a nation that blames itself for everything. Whatever happens they say, “It’s our fault.” And that’s a virtue. Even if it’s not true, it’s a virtue because if you blame yourself, you look for faults; and once you look for faults, you’ll discover them and you’ll become perfect. It’s the people who don’t look for faults and don’t blame themselves, they are full of sins, full of imperfections. It’s only when people look that they find.
If you look for chametz, you might find some forgotten piece of bread that is hidden away. If you don’t look, you won’t find. It doesn’t mean you don’t have some chametz stacked away. Everybody has some chametz stacked away; a bottle of whiskey here or a biscuit there. If you don’t look, you’ll have chametz in your possession. The Jew always looks for chametz, for sins, all year round and therefore he discovers wrong things of which he rids himself.
Now, there was a plague. And so the disciples of Rabbi Akiva said, “Chatanu! It’s our fault. We weren’t polite enough to our comrades. We mistreated them.”
How do we know it’s true? Did a prophet come or did a bas kol come from heaven that said, “You wicked fellows. You were so rude to each other. That’s why I’m sending a plague on you.” No such thing happened. It was a plague, a regular plague. Plagues comes because of germs. Plagues come because of other reasons. But they didn’t say that. They said, “It’s our fault.”
What happened? What did they blame themselves for? It could be that in their fire of discussing Torah one said to the other one, “You ignoramus! How could you say such a thing? How could you say such a pshat in the Gemara?” Today, you hear it every day, but they were such great men that they blamed themselves.
Now, we don’t have any bas kol that tells us that this was the reason for the plague. They themselves told us that. They searched in their hearts and couldn’t find anything else. If they could find other sins, they would have told us, “For these sins we’re being punished.” But they couldn’t find anything. So they finally said, “It’s because lo nahagu kavod zeh bazeh; it’s probably because you weren’t polite enough to each other.”
That’s a monument, a testimonial, to the greatness of the old generations. They blamed themselves. And therefore today every Sefirah we think about it and we decide we’re going to be more and more polite to each other. That’s how we should learn.
What do we do, however? The truth is we are as rough and rude to each other as possible; husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Neighbors are rough and rude to each other. Everybody is rude to some extent. They shouldn’t be but they are. But these rude people are sitting and saying, “Oy, the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva! They deserve what they got.”
Instead, let’s learn from them and let’s understand that we are a thousand times worse. What’s considered impoliteness among them would be among us the best etiquette.
TAPE # 313