We currently find ourselves in a very interesting time period between Pesach and Shavuot, during which we count the Sefirat HaOmer. The first thirty-three days of the Omer are a time when we mourn the loss of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As recorded in the Shulchan Aruch (493:1), “The practice is not to get married between Pesach and Shavuot – until Lag BeOmer, because during this time the students of Rabi Akiva perished.”
The Gemara (Yevamot 62b) tells us that Rabi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Gabbata to Antipatris, and they all died on the same day because they did not treat each other with respect. The Gemara goes on to say that the world remained in a desolate state until Rabi Akiva went to the south and found five new Talmdim (Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah, Rabi Yosi, Rabi Shimon and Rabi Elazar ben Shammua) who helped him create his new Yeshivah.
There are some very odd components about this story that need to be understood better. For one, how is it that the students of Rabi Akiva were not treating each other with respect? Every grade school student knows the song lyrics, “Amar Rabi Akiva, Zeh Kelal Gadol BaTorah, ‘VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha,’” meaning that Rabi Akiva says that the most important thing in the Torah is to love others as one loves oneself (VaYikra 19:18). How then could it be that Rabi Akiva’s students did not love each other. A second question to ask is why the Gemara use the Lashon of 12,000 pairs of students? Why not just say 24,000 students? There must be a reason for the Gemara’s usage of the Lashon of 12,000 pairs – what is it?
Last year, in an Aggadah Shiur given at Torah Academy of Bergen Academy, Rabbi Jachter developed the following idea that can help us answer our questions: When Rabi Akiva had his first Yeshivah, he had so many students that he was not able to personally know all 24,000 of them. He would set them up in pairs (12,000), and each pair would learn in competition with the next. This style of teaching encouraged growth through competition. The students were learning a tremendous amount of Torah, but they weren’t satisfied with their learning. They were merely learning to acquire more knowledge than their peers. After all these students died, Rabi Akiva opened up a much smaller Yeshivah, with only five Talmidim, where he was able to have a Kesher (relationship) with all of his students. These Talmidim no longer learned out of competition, but rather out of love for the Torah. It was only after Rabi Akiva opened his new Yeshivah that he made his famous statement that “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha” is the most important principle in the Torah.
There are two main lessons that we can take away from the story of Rabi Akiva. For one, we should learn that one must teach Torah out of love for his Talmidim. Secondly, and maybe even more profound, everyone needs to ask himself if what he is doing is correct; if not, perhaps that person needs to change some aspect of his life. Rabi Akiva initially assumed that what he was doing was correct, since he was teaching 24,000 students Torah! It took this horrible plague for Rabi Akiva to realize that his way of teaching had to change. Rabi Akiva was successful in changing his ways. We must remember that in order to grow in our Avodat Hashem, we must follow Rabi Akiva and make major or minor changes throughout our lives in order to improve ourselves. By taking after Rabi Akiva, we will hopefully have an easier time accomplishing this goal.