Why Didn’t the Disciples Emulate Their Teacher?

One reason we celebrate Lag BaOmer is that an epidemic which caused the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples ceased on that day.1 Our Sages relate2 that the epidemic had been caused by the failure of these students to relate to each other respectfully. This is very surprising. After all, was it not Rabbi Akiva who defined the commandment3 to “love your neighbor as yourself” as “a fundamental principle of the Torah”?4 How could his disciples have departed from his teachings so drastically that their interpersonal conduct resulted in an epidemic?

Skew Lines

Chassidic thought explains that because every person is unique in his nature and thought processes, he has a unique path in the service of G‑d, in the study of Torah, and in the fulfillment of mitzvos. For example, one individual may be motivated by the love of G‑d, while another is inspired by the awe of Him. Similarly, each of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples had his own personal approach to divine service. Because they were highly developed individuals, each had internalized his own particular approach to the point where it affected every aspect of his personality. Moreover, being men of integrity, they no doubt spoke their minds plainly.

Operating from within his own perspective, each of them perceived any approach different from his own as incomplete, an inadequate and inferior path. And because Rabbi Akiva emphasized the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” each of his students tried to influence his col­leagues to accept his own approach. Being all intensely involved in their own path of service, however, none of them would change. The tension between them began to escalate as the deep commitment every student felt to his own particular approach barred a proper show of respect for colleagues who followed a different path.

Seeing Beyond Oneself

We can learn several lessons from the story of Rabbi Akiva’s students. First, though they erred by not showing each other due respect, the depth of their involvement in their service of G‑d is noteworthy. A person who takes his obligation to serve G‑d casually would not have reacted in this manner. Their conduct shows us the degree to which our relationship with G‑d must have primacy in our lives.

Nonetheless, the deficiency in their course of action — highlighted by the severe punishment they received — must also be recognized. No matter how deeply we are involved in our own service of G‑d, we must always be broadminded enough to appreciate that someone else may have a different approach. Although, from our perspective, his path may ap­pear inadequate, our perception of his inadequacies may stem from our own limitations, and not from his.

Furthermore, even if someone is indeed underdeveloped, his deficiencies need not prevent us from looking upon him in a favorable light. For every individual possesses a potential for growth. We should concentrate our efforts on helping him realize that potential, rather than merely accentuating his need to do so.

The Wealth We All Possess

Rabbi Akiva’s life provides us with an example of how any person can reach greatness regardless of his background and present level of achievement. Rabbi Akiva descended from a family of converts5 and did not begin to study until the age of forty.6 Nevertheless, he attained such heights of scholarship that our entire knowledge of the Oral Law rests upon his teachings.7

Our prophets relate8 that G‑d tells His people, “And you shall be for Me a land of delight.” The Baal Shem Tov explains9 this metaphor as follows: Just as the earth hides treas­ures of gold, silver and precious stones, every individual pos­sesses valuable spiritual resources. While this potential is revealed in some and hidden in others, it is present in all. All we need to do is labor to uncover it. Every individual can, if he applies himself, make radical advances.

Water Smoothing Stone

Furthermore, we need not wait for miracles to inspire us. Our Sages relate10 that Rabbi Akiva was motivated to begin studying Torah by a simple physical observation. Noticing how a certain rock had been worn away by the sheer con­stancy of dripping water, he understood that Torah (which is likened to water11) could refine those aspects of his nature that were as rough as stone.

As was the case with Rabbi Akiva, there are no obstacles to personal growth that cannot be overcome. As our Sages teach,12 every individual has within himself the potential to ask, “When will my deeds approach the deeds of my forefa­thers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov?”

May our individual efforts to refine and develop ourselves and appreciate the growth of our colleagues speed the coming of the era when Mashiach “will perfect the entire world, [motivating all] to serve G‑d together,”13 with the coming of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXII, p. 138 ff.; the Sichos of Shabbos Parshas Behar, 5733