This past Thursday, we celebrated Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of our 49 day count from Pesach to Shavuot. Lag BaOmer consists of celebrations, bonfires, and for most of us, an end to the period of mourning which began after Pesach. It is well known that we mourn from Pesach to Lag BaOmer because during that period of time, Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students died. This reason for mourning is recounted in two different Gemarot, and if we look closely at them, we can learn a valuable lesson.
The Gemara (Yevamot 62b) recounts that in between Pesach and Shavuot, 12,000 pairs of Rabi Akiva’s students died; after this tragedy, Rabi Akiva rebuilt the Torah world by teaching 5 more students, including Rabi Yehudah and Rabi Shimon. Rabi Akiva was faced with a tragic situation, and he made the best of it by restarting the Torah chain. If not for Rabi Akiva’s vision for the future, the entire line of Torah could have died out. Another Gemara (Shabbat 33b) discusses the death of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students, yet in this version of the story, there is no happy ending in which Rabi Akiva restarts the Torah chain.
Upon examining these two Gemarot, we can find two differences. The first is that the Gemara in Yevamot tells us of the death of 12,000 pairs of students, whereas the Gemara in Shabbat tells us of the death of 24,000 students. In addition, the Gemara which refers to Rabi Akiva’s students as 12,000 pairs ends on a positive note, whereas the Gemara which refers to the students as 24,000 individuals does not have a positive end.
Rav Eli Reich of Yeshivat Sha’alvim explains that these two differences are not coincidental. When Rabi Akiva’s students were viewed as 12,000 pairs, even though they tragically died, there was hope for the future, because they were viewed as groups of two students. However, when each student was viewed as an individual who was unwilling to interact with any of his fellow students, nothing positive amounted from the tragedy.
We should learn from the students of Rabi Akiva the importance of Achdut, unity. If we are united, then we can face any tragedy with certainty that something positive will come from it. Hopefully, we will take this lesson to heart and enter the holiday of Shavuot as an Am Echad BeLeiv Echad, a single nation with a single heart.