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The whole subject of Rebbe Akiva’s students, twenty-four thousand of whom perished during the space of thirty-two days, is a curious one. It must be kept in mind that none of them did anything wrong. It was their teacher, in fact, who declared that “ahavat Yisrael,” or love of a fellow Jew, is a major tenet of the Torah. Without question, each and every one of them strove to emulate their teacher, Rebbe Akiva, and therefore they must have had at least minimal respect and admiration for one another. To say, therefore, that they passed away because they didn’t have proper respect for one another demands explanation.

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of Rebbe Akiva’s avoda, or connection with the One Above. He was known to have yearned for the day when he could pass away in sanctification of G-d. That is, he aspired to die in order to prove that he was dedicated to nothing other than G-d and the Torah. He wasn’t just ready and prepared for that day, he was yearning and thirsting for it. Rebbe Akiva’s students were sure to have absorbed something of this single-minded yearning and desire. They were sure to have tried to apply it to their own approach and connection to the One Above. Throughout history, many Jews have given up their lives in the service of G-d throughout Jewish history. However, to actively seek and wait for it, as admirable as that might be, bespeaks of a certain self-absorption as well. For, if one seeks to expire in a particular fashion, it is because he feels that is what “he” wants and needs. Possibly, each of Rebbe Akiva’s students might have felt that his own path and approach to serving G-d (in dimensions other than giving up their lives) was the right and the best one. For example, he whose emphasis was upon love of G-d rejected those who emphasized fear of Him, and vice versa. To then observe another student on a different path altogether may have resulted in mutual rejection and intolerance. Perhaps it was that, then that led to their untimely demise.

Still, why all of them at once? How do twenty-four thousand people, all disciples of one great sage, pass away in such a relatively short period of time? By way of possible answer, the time period is one of judgment and stringency. During the counting of the omer, from Pesach to Shavuot, one is supposed to work on oneself with great intensity, developing and refining his personal characteristics. There is always the danger that the intensity may be mis-directed and applied to someone else, rather than to onself alone, as was meant to be. And once you start to apply the standards that you should use on yourself to someone else, the consequences can be negative.

In addition, there is another story in the Talmud Yerushalmi involving the number twenty-four. There is an event in which twenty-four carriages of Rebbe’s family got together in Lod, and encountered the “evil eye,” and passed away within a short period of time. This story suggests that if during a period of judgment and constriction, a certain number of people (defined by the number twenty-four) get together, the “evil eye” has a way of gaining influence and wreaking destruction. That, apparently is what happened as well during the counting of the omer this particular year; twenty-four thousand students of Rebbe Akiva encountered the evil eye and as a consequence, they passed away in one relatively short time.

Among the five remaining students were the Rashbi (Rebbe Shimon) and Rebbe Meir. When it came time for Rebbe Akiva to give them rabbinic ordination, he sat them down in order of their greatness in Torah and righteousness, placing Rebbe Meir first. Seeing that Rebbe Shimon reacted negatively, wrinkling his face, Rebbe Akiva said to him, “It’s enough that me and your Creator know of your power.” That is to say, none of the other students of Rebbe Akiva were aware of the spiritual greatness of Rebbe Shimon – only Rebbe Akiva himself. And yet, regarding Rebbe Meir, it is said in the Talmud that none of his fellow students could get to the bottom of Rebbe Meir’s thought processes. They knew he was great, just not how great. In the case of Rebbe Shimon, he managed to so conceal his spiritual stature that his fellow students had no idea of his righteousness. Only his teacher and mentor, Rebbe Akiva, was aware of it. He must have been in a “different league” altogether.

Rebbe Meir’s genius lay in his ability to give parables and examples in order to bring an exalted spiritual subject down to the level of the person he wished to teach. He could come up with many parables on the same subject, bringing it “down” three hundred times until it finally “fit” the student. If someone can find a parable to convey his meaning from one level to another, it means that the two levels are somehow within range of each other. The entire physical creation is a “mashal,” or parable, for the spiritual realm. And within the spiritual realm itself, there is parable upon parable in order to in order man to make spiritual progress and grow in awareness and understanding from one stage to the next. The higher the spiritual level, the more parables, or “mashalim” are necessary in order to convey it to levels below it. Rebbe Meir, as we said, was a master of spiritual parables. He could give three hundred spiritual parables (King Solomon could give three thousand) in order to enable his students to grow in understanding and progress from one spiritual level to the next. But, this means that their understanding is connected to the creation and the world. Rebbe Meir was a master of understanding G-dliness in the creation.

Rebbe Shimon said about himself, “I am tied up in one bundle with the One Above.” That is, I am one with G-d. Rebbe Shimon’s service of G-d transcended the creation, putting him more in touch with the Creator than with the creation. That’s why the other students of Rebbe Akiva didn’t recognize his greatness. Their avoda, like Rebbe Meir’s, was involved with the G-dliness and spirituality within creation, while Rebbe Shimon was involved with G-d Himself. This was also reflected in their respective styles of learning Torah. Rebbe Meir’s three hundred “mashalim” were parables designed to help students understand the revealed Torah and how it expresses itself in the world of halacha, while Rebbe Shimon’s emphasis was on the hidden structure and secrets of the Torah. While both of them absorbed the teachings of Rebbe Akiva, it was Rebbe Shimon who learned kabala from Rebbe Akiva and subsequently compiled the Zohar.

We also see from several stories in the Talmud that Rebbe Shimon was heavily involved in “tikun olam.” He actively searched for human situations that he could improve and rectify utilizing his knowledge in Torah and his spiritual connection. Last week, we wrote about the difference between “seeing” and “hearing.” Since now, we no longer have the Temple, our avoda (service of G-d) is involved with “hearing,” – hearing the parables brought to us by teachers and spiritual mentors, until we “get” and grasp the spiritual message that they wish to bring to us. But, in the time of the Temple, when we could literally “see” G-dliness with the naked eye, we didn’t need “mashalim,” or parables. We could grasp the presence of G-dliness by just going to the Temple and seeing it in front of us, and everyone would be granted G-dly revelation on the level that he understood.

In a similar fashion, we may also comprehend the difference between Rebbe Meir and Rebbe Shimon and their respective days of passing. Rebbe Meir passed away on Pesach Sheni, when the message is, “it’s never too late, you always get another chance to serve G-d properly.” Or, possibly in other words, “if you don’t get this mashal or parable, try to get this other one.” In a certain sense, all of our lives are attempts and tests in order to get closer to G-d. We are granted tests and tasks in order to bring us closer to Him, and if we don’t pass, we are granted another. So, each test or task is like another mashal, or parable, meant to bring us closer to the One Above. Rebbe Shimon, though was impatient with this approach. He wasn’t satisfied with parables that only approximated G-dliness. He wanted to see G-dliness, and moreover to reveal it to other Jews as well. Being united in one connection with the One Above, he wanted to reveal G-dliness in the physical world. That’s why he actively sought out situations in which to perform “tikun olam” – in order to demonstrate actual spiritual revelation in the world by rectifying it and making it a “dira b’tachtonim,” – a dwelling place for the One Above. And on lag b’omer, the day of his passing, he indeed revealed new secrets of the Torah for everyone to see. His day of passing (the thirty third, or “hod shb’hod,” is the day of true acknowledgment, which brings to revelation of G-dliness from Above.

Adopted from sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 1, 3, 32, 37 Have a happy Lag b’omer and a Shabbat Shalom, Good Shabbos!
Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem