We are on the verge of the semi-mourning period of the Omer – (different מנהגים) – what is the mourning about –
Gemara in יבמות (62) – י"ב זוגים תלמידים היו לו לר"ע... וכולם מתו בפרק א' מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זל"ז
Q – Granted a great tragedy – but Jewish history, unfortunately, has known many other tragedies – why do we continue to remember this one?
Q – We read today – ואהבת לרעך כמוך; and we all know ר"ע’s famous saying – זה כלל גדול בתורה. R’ Akiva put this concept of אהבת ישראל at the center of his philosophy of Judaism. How is it possible then his own students – en masse – should have neglected it?
Q – language of Gemara is difficult – 12,000 pairs of students; why not say simply that he had 24,000 students?
Gemara (יבמות ס"ב) – אוהב את אשתו כגופו ומכבדה יותר מגופו
Gemara is saying something tremendously important – try and understand it.
Love has to be balanced by כבוד. Why? Isn’t marriage all about love? And doesn’t love automatically imply respect?
What is etymology of כבוד? בעל המאור – כבוד=נפש, as in למען יזמרך כבוד ולא ידום.
So how does כבוד come to mean honor? Because when do we honor someone? When we see him or her as having some unique quality, that sets them apart. כבוד is the acknowledgement and the deference that we offer to individuality, to individual uniqueness and accomplishment. We don’t honor someone for being the same as everyone else, but for being – in some way – different, and different in a way that we value.
The difference between love and respect is that love is based on the feeling that we’re really one. People marry because they find in their partner a kindred spirit, in some way. People love their children because they see themselves as an extension of themselves. We love our fellow Jews because we feel kinship with people with whom we share history and destiny.
Respect, on the other hand, is based on the dignity of difference. I respect someone because I recognize that he is different than me, and I consider that difference valuable.
Love without respect can be overbearing, even tyrannical –
You see that with children. A parent can love his children – and yet ruin them by constantly trying to make them over to be more like him, or her. In the popular culture there’s almost a cliché about the baseball father - the father who wants the son to excel in baseball because he love baseball as a child – but maybe the son is not inclined that way. The parent who loves his or her children but cannot tolerate the fact that they may have chosen a different path in life – in השקפה, in political belief, in career choices. It’s not enough to love a child – one has to respect his individuality, and accord him the dignity of difference.
And this is even more true with a spouse. Because it is such a close human relationship, because it is so much based on love – on finding in each other kindred spirits – it’s so especially important for that love to be balanced by respect, by כבוד – by the recognition that my partner is a different person than I am; that he or she will not necessarily like the same books that I do, or the same food, or have the same opinion – and because I love them, I am driven to make them over to be like me, but that’s destructive – that’s the tyranny of love – you have to temper the love with כבוד, and learn to value what makes you different from each other as much as what makes you the same.
I would like to suggest that here is where תלמדי ר"ע went wrong. It wasn’t that they neglected their rebbe’s teaching of ואהבת לרעך כמוך. How could they? It was his core teaching, the one he considered cardinal – the כלל גדול בתורה. Rather, it was they took it too far. Because they put so much emphasis on אהבה – they failed to balance it with כבוד. לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה. They loved each other – but they didn’t respect each other. They didn’t respect each other’s individuality and differences.
I remember when I first went to Yeshiva in ארץ ישראל, 1 year in גוש. There was a tendency, by זימון, to say – חברי נברך. R’ Aharon got up and expressed his displeasure. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but no doubt it was something along these lines. It’s very nice to feel that everyone is your חבר, all together in one loving commune. It’s the ethos of a kibbutz. It’s an expression – if you will – of אהבה. But אהבה has to be tempered by כבוד – by the recognition that the other person has his own unique מעלות, which perhaps you don’t share; and his own unique accomplishments, which perhaps you have not achieved; and his own unique viewpoint, which may be different than yours. And therefore we address our friends – not only in terms of love – חברי, but also in terms of respect – רבותי.
I think that is why the Gemara emphasized – י"ב אלף זוגים תלמידים. 12,000 חברותות. Even in a yeshiva where everyone loves each other, with their strong collegiality – the closest bond is with your חברותא. And because the failure of R’ Akiva’s תלמידים came – not from a lack of אהבה, but – from a superabundance of אהבה, and therefore a lack of כבוד, the real breakdown was between חברותות. לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה – each pair of חברותות.
So that was the failing of תלמידי ר"ע. Not that they love too little; but too much. And it follows that it is not our failing. Because our failing – the failing that led to the destruction of the בית המקדש – and it’s continued desolation – was, and is – as חז"ל tell us – שנאת חינם. And I would suggest that that is exactly why we mourn for the תלמידי ר"ע. Because their loss represent a loss of a reservoir of אהבת ישראל – a movement of אהבת ישראל – that might have saved the Jewish people.
A generation after the חורבן – a generation after that eruption of civil strife and שנאת חינם that had destroyed everything – here was a large commune of scholars, a potent force within the people, who had adopted as their motto the cardinal principle of ר"ע – ואהבת לרעך כמוך. How much potential there was in that – how much promise. But they went to far. They excelled at אהבו כגופו – but not at מכבדו יותר מגופו. And we mourn for that loss.
Story with Amshinover …
The truth is that we need to work at both ends. On the one hand – שנאת חינם is still with us, and we need to focus on אהבת ישראל and all of its attendant מצוות – not speaking לשון הרע, לימוד לכף זכות and so on. And there are, in the frum community, resources that are being directed toward that goal. But at the same time – we also have to work on מכבדו יותר מגופו; to learn how to love each other and yet respect each other, and specifically how to respect each other’s differences. And only if we do that, will we finally rectify those fateful failings – both the failure of שנאת חינם, which brought about the חורבן, and the failure of לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה, which had such terrible consequences for ר"ע’s תלמידים and for our entire people.