1. Omer period has traditionally been a difficult period for the Jewish people. Of course, we know the Gemara in יבמות ס"ב ב' that R' Akiva had 24,000 students who died in this period. But throughout history this has been a period of trial:
- The massacres of the crusaders in 1096;
- The pogroms that followed the black plague, in 1348;
- The order for the Spanish Inquisition, in 1492;
- The Chmielnicki massacres, in 1648;
- The final crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto, in 1943;
All these took place in the Sefirah period.
2. We don't, of course, know the cause of all these tragedies. But in regard to the death of R' Akiva's students the Gemara does find a reason for their deaths; because they did not treat each other with sufficient respect.
3. Question: Wasn't it R' Akiva who taught (Sifra, quoted by Rashi in this weeks Sedra): ואהבת לרעך כמוך, זה כלל גדול בתורה. How could his own students have neglected a rule that he considered so paramount?
4. Another question: What was the novelty in R' Akiva's teaching? After all, Hillel, generations before, had already taught: דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד - זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך - פירושה הוא, זיל גמור (Shabos 31a).
5. Also, why the difference in R' Akiva's and Hillel's language; R' Akiva using the language of our Parsha, and Hillel using a different formula altogether?
6. And why the difference between כלל גדול בתורה, and זו היא כל התורה כולה?
7. Story: Beilis trial. Rabbi Maza challenged about the Gemara in Yevamos which expounds the pasuk in Yechezkel: ואתם צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם; אתם קרויים אדם ואין אוה"ע קרויים אדם. And his answer: Jews all over the world are in an uproar over this trial; because they are like one person; if one limb hurts, the entire body is in pain.
8. The entire Jewish people are one נשמה; the deeper our recognition of this, the more we empathize and feel at one with every single Jew. This is the deeper meaning of ואהבת לרעך כמוך; love your neighbor like yourself, by recognizing that he is yourself.
9. Another root for אהבת ישראל: Gemara in Shabbos (קל"ג ב'):
אבא שאול אומר: ואנוהו - הוי דומה לו: מה הוא חנון ורחום - אף אתה היה חנון
G-d's creation of the world is the ultimate act of חסד; עולם חסד יבנה . We are enjoined to imitate him; to engage in חסד with others. To inculcate in ourselves the attribute of altruism.
10. This time of of חסד is just the opposite, in its root, from that of ואהבת לרעך כמוך. It flows - not from seeing my fellow-Jew as part of myself, but rather from inculcating in myself the capacity to give to others.
11. This second concept is that of Hillel: מה דעלך סני לחברך לא תעבד. Treat others with the same consideration that you demand for yourself. Recognize that other people, other lives, also have value.
12. Thus, Hillel and R' Akiva are discussing two different types of אהבת ישראל. Each has an advantage that the other does not. That of R' Akiva has the immediacy and power of self-love; it is the feeling that all Jews are one family. But that of Hillel requires a greater spritual capacity; to love something that is not part of ourself. The two are different, althogh complementary.
And Hillel's teaching has another strength. R' Akiva emphasizes that all Jews are one family. But families squabble; because they are so close, even small differences become annoying. If we only love our Jews because we recognize ourselves in them, the urge becomes overpowering to make them like ourselvess It is also necessary to have the capacity to offer חסד and respect to people in whom we don't recognize ourselves.
13. Quite possibly R' Akiva's students were not נוהג כבוד זב"ז precisely because they emphasized R' Akiva's dictum over that of Hillel. They emphasized the moment of brotherhood, over that of respecting each others uniqueness.