Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer, is a Jewish holiday. One of the reasons for this holiday is that on this day the fatal plague that struck down many of Rabbi Akiva’s thousands of the students came to an end.1

Rabbi Akiva’s scholarship and holiness were such that he attracted twenty-four thousand devoted disciples. The Gemara relates2 that the terrible epidemic that ravaged Rabbi Akiva’s students resulted in part from their lack of proper respect for one another.

Rabbi Akiva is known for his aphorism: “...‘Love your fellow as yourself’ — this is a cardinal principle of the Torah.”3 How is it possible that those who are deemed by the “Torah of truth” to have been his disciples and followers of his directives, should act in a manner contrary to his teachings, by not having the proper love and respect for one another?

Since no two people’s personalities and opinions are ever entirely alike,4 it is understandable that each of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples comprehended his master’s teachings in a slightly different manner. Accordingly, each student placed particular emphasis on his own manner of Divine service deriving from his own understanding of his master’s teachings — one disciple stressed the love of G‑d, another the fear of Him, and so on.5

All of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, of course, based their conceptions and approach to Divine service on Rabbi Akiva’s teachings. However, they were so permeated with their own individual conceptions and their own approaches based on these teachings, that each student felt that whoever did not follow his particular path was deficient both in understanding and in Divine service.

As faithful disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who placed so much emphasis on loving one’s fellow as oneself, they were not satisfied with merely attaining great heights themselves. Each disciple also endeavored to prevail upon his peers to serve G‑d according to what he understood to be the proper path — his individual path. The other students did not accept the path of their fellows for they, too, were completely preoccupied with their own manner of service.

This eventually led to their not treating one another with proper respect. As honest individuals, they could not possibly act in a hypocritical manner, honoring their friends — who they thought were not following the proper path — externally, while inwardly disagreeing with their manner of service. It was therefore impossible for them to harbor true feelings of honor and respect towards friends whose comprehension and Divine service they held to be deficient.

As faithful disciples of Rabbi Akiva, their attitude surely mirrored Rabbi Akiva’s philosophy in some way. Indeed, Rabbi Akiva had told his disciples6 that throughout his life he had intensely desired to attain a state of mesirus nefesh, total self-sacrifice and martyrdom on behalf of G‑d.

Such a state permeates the individual in his entirety: there is no part of him insensitive to this state, involving as it does one’s entire existence. Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, too, shared his desire. While in this state, their manner of Divine service did not leave room for any variance.

The greatness of this service notwithstanding, it leaves something to be desired. To crave martyrdom, i.e., to desire to flee the world and be absorbed in holiness and in G‑d, must be accompanied by an equal desire to secure an indwelling of G‑dliness within the world.

Rabbi Akiva alone — because of his exalted status — was able to combine the relentless drive for mesirus nefesh with the calm performance of Torah and mitzvos, thereby permeating this physical world with holiness.7 Those of his students who passed away before Lag BaOmer, unfortunately, were not equal to the task.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXII, pp. 138-140.