24,000 Plus One

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com

There was once a man who had twenty-four thousand disciples. He taught them to love, but their love was too absolute, too true, to be loving. They died, and their death spawned a period of mourning that darkens our calendar to this very day.

This man had one disciple who devoted his entire life -- literally his every minute -- to the pursuit of truth. Yet his truth was true enough to love. He, too, passed from this world, and the anniversary of his passing is celebrated as a day of joy and festivity to this very day.

This, in a word, is the story of Lag BaOmer -- the story of Rabbi Akiva and his greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

The 18th of Iyar (which this year falls on Thursday, May 3rd) is Lag BaOmer -- the 33rd day of the Omer Count which spans the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. Two joyous occasions are associated with this day. During the Omer period we mourn the deaths of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because, as the Talmud informs us, "They did not conduct themselves with respect for each other"; Lag BaOmer is the day on which the plague ended and the dying ceased. Lag BaOmer is also the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Akiva's greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Before his death (many years later, without connection to the plague), Rabbi Shimon referred to the day of his passing as "the day of my happiness" and instructed his disciples that it be observed each year as a day of joyous celebration.

Why is the passing of Rabbi Akiva's other disciples mourned as a national tragedy, while the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is remembered with celebration and joy? Indeed, the very same day that celebrates the end of the dying of Rabbi Akiva's disciples, celebrates the death of his greatest disciple! To unravel the paradox of Lag BaOmer, we must first examine the root of the disrespect that caused the plague amongst Rabbi Akiva's disciples.

Rabbi Akiva taught that "Love your fellow as yourself is a cardinal principle in Torah"; indeed, this is the most famous of his teachings. One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle. How was it that they, of all people, were deficient in this area?

But their very diligence in fulfilling the precept "Love your fellow as yourself" was their undoing. Our sages have said that "Just as every person's face differs from the faces of his fellows, so, too, every person's mind differs from the minds of his fellows." When the twenty-four-thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva studied their master's teachings, the result was twenty-four-thousand nuances of understanding, as the same concepts were assimilated by twenty-four-thousand minds -- each unique and distinct from its 23,999 fellows. Had Rabbi Akiva's students loved each other less, this would have been a matter of minor concern; but because each disciple loved his fellows as he loved himself, he felt compelled to correct their erroneous thinking and behavior, and to enlighten them as to the true meaning of their master's words. For the same reason, they found themselves incapable of expressing a hypocritical respect for each others' views when they sincerely believed that the others' understanding was lacking, even in the slightest degree.

The greater a person is, the higher are the standards by which he is judged; in the words of our sages, "With the righteous, G-d is exacting to a hairsbreadth." Thus, what for people of our caliber would be considered a minor failing had such a devastating effect upon the disciples of Rabbi Akiva.

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