Shavuot: Preparation for Shavuot

Nov 17, 2014

Rabbi Menachem Farber

How strange it seems to prepare for Matan Torah through re-experiencing the tragic demise of Rabbi Akiva’s Talmidim. Yet, the proximity of such a major tragedy to Matan Torah is surely not coincidental. What lesson is there for us in that tragedy and in its timing? The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of Talmidim, and that they all died between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavuot) because they did not conduct themselves with Kavod towards each other.

Of the many questions one can ask on the Gemara, I would like to point out two. First, why does the Gemara say he had 12,000 pairs (Zugim) instead of saying 24,000 individual students? Second, how can we understand that such great Talmidei Chachamim were deficient in their Kavod HaTorah?

I would like to suggest the following. The pairing of Rabbi Akiva’s Talmidim was a pinnacle level reached in their Torah growth. They weren’t simply Chavrutot, rather they were similar to the five pairs mentioned at the beginning of Masechet Avot. There, each pair represented the unity of the two separate approaches to learning Torah, as we find in the Pasuk, “Orech Yamim B’Yaminah, Uv’Smolah Osher VeKavod.” – “Long life in its right and in its left wealth and honor.” The Torah has a right (love) and a left (awe.) Later these two approaches were going to create the great arguments that served as the foundation for Torah She’Ba’al Peh, “The Talmud Bavli.” But at the time of the five pairs the great depth of Torah learning brought both sides to the central essential essence of Torah where, of course, there are no differences. Rabbi Akiva raised the level of his Talmidim back to that level. Each pair was a union of the right and left of Torah, – the long life of Torah inseparable from the Torah’s wealth and glory. That is why we are told Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of Talmidim and not 24,000 individuals. An extreme Kavod HaTorah was demanded at that level. What was needed was both to be one with one’s learning partner and at the same time to be truly appreciative of the vast differences. And not only to appreciate, but to give Kavod to that difference, this was the Kavod expected by Rabbi Akiva’s Talmidim. Perhaps they were found to be, in some very subtle way, deficient in that Kavod. It was sufficiently deficient to cause their death because of their very high level, and the demands made at that level. After their demise Rabbi Akiva did not repeat his original feat, he taught five Talmidim, davka an odd number and not an even one.

What can we learn from their death and its proximity to Matan Torah?

That Torah, without Kavod HaTorah cannot exist, and even more, that Torah not properly valued and appreciated can, chalila, destroy instead of create. Today, especially in Eretz Yisrael, where the Torah is perceived by some of the secular population as being primitive, irrelevant, and held in such disrepute and disrespect, how much more do we have to strengthen the Kavod of Torah. We must strengthen it in our own hearts and minds and in the way we project it to our secular brethren. The respect we owe our Torah is to respect her chachamim and to intensify our own learning until there radiates from our lives the great dignity the Torah bestows on her children. With that we can then go towards Kabalat HaTorah.

“Ki Hem Chayeinu V’Orech Yameinu!”

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