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Parshat Behar

"Love work, hate lordship, and seek no intimacy with the ruling power"

Translated by Shulamith Berman

(All rights reserved to Keren Yishai)

With your permission, I would like to devote some shiurim between Pesach and Shavuot to Masechet Avot – Pirkei Avot. For today's shiur I have chosen the mishna on the sayings of Shemaya and Avtalyon. The custom of studying Pirkei Avot is so deeply ingrained in us that the sixth chapter of the masechet (known as Boraithot, or "External Teachings") is read on the sixth Shabbat between Pesach and Shavuot, which always falls immediately before Shavuot. The chapter is also known as "Perek Kinyan Torah" – the Chapter on the Acquisition of the Torah – since it is entirely taken up with the ways in which Torah can be learned or acquired. As a rule, when we refer to this custom of reading Pirkei Avot between Pesach and Shavuot we really mean the gradual progression towards receiving the Torah.

During this shiur I will attempt to review another aspect, one which I consider to be a basic principle and the one which, more than any other, makes it incumbent upon us to study Masechet Avot during these seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Two great historic events occurred during this period. The first was the counting of the Omer, the harvesting of the Omer, Pesach and the arrival at Mt. Sinai. The second event was historically very far removed from the first, yet in essence they were closely connected – I am referring to our mourning during Sefirat HaOmer for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students. The historic timing of their demise, between Pesach and Shavuot, is no accident. Their death is the reason for the delay between the two festivals. As Ramban explained, Pesach and Shavuot are actually one long holiday with seven weeks of hol hamo'ed in the middle. This is why the name and date of Shavuot (Atzeret) do not appear in the Torah – it is the end of the Festival of Redemption which began on Pesach. It is the climax of the process whereby we emerge from Egypt and Egypt departs from us as we stand at Mt. Sinai. The festivities of this long holiday are suspended in the middle because we are mourning the passing of Rabbi Akiva's students.

In my humble opinion, by studying Masechet Avot we are, in effect, atoning for the sin they committed. It serves as a 'tikkun' for the tragic deaths of twenty four thousand students. In Masechet Yevamot 62 we read: "it is said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatros." This is a curious choice of phrase – 'twelve thousand pairs of students.' Why not simply 'twenty four thousand students'? We know that they studied in pairs – chevruta – is the implication here that they did not behave respectfully to one another? Apparently it's possible to be a 'chevruta' but not a 'chaver'. It is written of Rabbi Akiva that when he returned after twenty four years he was accompanied by twenty four thousand students – we are not told that he returned with twelve thousand chevrutot. According to the story, they behaved disrespectfully to one another, and their punishment was that they fell ill and died of an epidemic that swept through the yeshiva. But the story opens by telling us that they were chevrutot – they studied in pairs. They thought and created together, but their conduct towards one another was disrespectful. "And they all died at one time because they did not show respect to each other and the world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came before the rabbis in the south… Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, who were studying Torah at that time. We learn from this that they died between Pesach and Atzeret."

The phrase 'the world was desolate' reminds us of the sixth day - "And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day". This was a day unlike all those that preceded it, because the sixth day was conditional: 'if you accept the Torah it will be well and good. If not, I will return the world to its earliest state of chaos and desolation'. Shavuot is the festival of receiving the Torah, which was given to bring the world forth out of chaos and desolation. Rabbi Akiva's students died because, by not respecting one another, they returned the world to its previous state of desolation. We study Masechet Avot between Pesach and Shavuot to institute a 'tikkun.'

We'll return to Rabbi Akiva and his students later on, but it's impossible not to return again and again to the question for which there is no satisfactory answer: We are speaking of the great and illustrious Rabbi Akiva for whom the love of one's fellow man came before all else, the renowned Rabbi who said "Love your neighbor as yourself. This is a great rule in the Torah." This is Rabbi Akiva who preached brotherly love on a national scale, who was grateful for the opportunity to die a martyr and thus fulfil the injunction to love God "with all your soul." Yet this same Rabbi Akiva failed to imbue his twenty four thousand students with love and respect for one another. How can this be?

The Rambam asks why Masechet Avot is included in Seder Nezikin, despite the fact that the contents of this masechet have very little to do with damages. His explanation is that damages are dealt with by dayanim (judges) and they, more than anyone else, need to absorb the wisdom contained in Masechet Avot.

"Shemaya and Avtalyon received the tradition from the preceding. Shemayah said, Love work, hate lordship, and seek no intimacy with the ruling power. Avtalyon said, You sages, be heedful of your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be exiled to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who come after you drink thereof and die, and the Heavenly Name be profaned" (Avot 1:10-11).

"Shemaya and Avtalyon received the tradition from the preceding" – referring to Yehuda ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach. A constantly recurring phrase in Masechet Avot is "he used to say". These sages were not merely quoting sayings, they were expressing the tenets by which they lived. In each case, the sage's utterances illustrated the kind of person he was. So to know about the man, we must know his background and the period in which he lived. The Yerushalmi Talmud tell us that "he who deals in rumors must be afraid as if the person of whom he speaks is standing before him." One's entire attitude changes. Yehuda ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach were the president and head of the Beth Din, leaders of the people during the time that Yannai was king of Israel. King Yannai was the brother in law of Shimon ben Shetach, who was the brother of Queen Shlomzion. Those were difficult times. Queen Shlomzion was a noble queen but Yannai was a questionable ruler, to say the least. The two royal princes, Horcanus and Aristobulus fought fiercely between themselves, and their squabbles paved the way for the reign of King Herod. Shemaya and Avtalyon took up their duties as spiritual leaders of the people near the end of Shlomzion's rule or possibly at the beginning of Herod's reign. Their predecessors, Yehuda ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach, dealt in judiciary matters, cautioning judges to consider both parties to an argument equally guilty until reaching a verdict. They also had wise counsel regarding the examination of witnesses. Shemaya and Avtalyon were concerned with other matters.

Shemayah said, Love work, hate lordship, and seek no intimacy with the ruling power – harsh words indeed, but better understood once we have a clearer grasp of the historical background of the time. Shemaya, as we have said, served during the time of the Horcanus-Aristobulus conflict and the beginning of Herod's reign. He referred to the ruling authorities, but his advice was equally applicable to the rabbanut, as we shall see shortly. Avtalyon said, You sages, be heedful of your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be exiled to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who come after you drink thereof and die, and the Heavenly Name be profaned. These sayings are as relevant to us today as they were when they were first uttered. But first – who exactly were Shemaya and Avtalyon? Unlike all those who preceded them, they were not well connected, they had no 'yichus'. Hazal say of them (Gittin 57) that "They were of the descendents of Sennacherib…" in other words, Shemaya and Avtalyon were not Jewish by birth. They were descendents of 'other peoples' - converts, and there are some who feel it is in questionable taste or totally unnecessary to mention this fact.

Perhaps the place where this is most strongly felt is in Gemara Masechet Yoma Daf 71. Shemaya and Avtalyon lived during the reign of Herod. The Second Temple had been built, in all its glory. The Gemara relates the tale of a High Priest emerging from the Holy Temple. Because of the climate of the time, he may have been a genuine High Priest, but he may well have been a priest who attained this position through political maneuverings with Rome. The story goes as follows: "The tale is told of a High Priest emerging from the Temple" – the reference is to Yom Kippur, and we know about the appearance of the High Priest when he emerged from the Temple. It is written that when he emerged safely, the people rejoiced and celebrated. And indeed "the whole world went after the High Priest."

And then something happened: "When they beheld Shemaya and Avtalyon, they left the High Priest and followed them instead. Shemaya and Avtalyon approached the High Priest to greet him, but he said to them 'Let the descendants of the other peoples greet me'." When the people saw Shemaya and Avtalyon they preferred to go after them. The sense of identification, of bonding, of connection was stronger, and the High Priest was understandably hurt and offended. From the depths of his anger he lashed out at them and addressed them in derogatory terms. (Rashi says that the High Priest spoke in tones of contempt because they were of the descendants of Sennacherib, as mentioned in Gittin). The Gemara continues: "They said to him angrily, 'the descendents of the other peoples greet you in peace, because they are like Aaron who loved peace and pursued peace. But you who are the descendant of Aaron do not behave like Aaron."

I would like to relate to two aspects of this story. It is interesting to note that the people were willing to be led by these two men despite the fact that they were not "of their own" but came from afar. There is another interesting aspect worth noting, which arises perhaps from the very fact that they were not members of the politically correct in-crowd and yet they had 'made it' together. We never meet Shemaya without Avtalyon, they almost never disagree, and most interesting of all, they study in the same Bet Midrash. In the famous story about Hillel, we are told that on a Friday afternoon he climbed up on the roof, above the chimney, in the snow, in order to hear the words of Torah. The story continues that the two of them were sitting in the Bet Midrash, and Shemaya said to Avtalyon: "Avtalyon my brother, I see the shape of a man." They climbed onto the roof and found Hillel. Night was falling and Shabbat had already begun, but they ruled that it was permissible to remove the snow in order to bring him away from the chimney.

Hillel was their student. We read further in Pirkei Avot that "Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them." When Hillel was appointed President of the Bet Din his first innovation was as follows: "Hillel said: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and drawing them near to the Torah." Doesn't it seem likely that he made this pronouncement against the background of the incident with the High Priest? When he says "Be of the disciples of Aaron" could he be referring to someone who, despite the fact that he could prove his direct lineage to Aaron, did not uphold the tradition of Aaron? Conversely, there are those who are Aaron's disciples although they are not descended from him. Hillel came from a similar background. He was not descended from the family of princes and presidents of the Bet Din, and although he was appointed to head the Bet Din this appointment was a long time coming. After Shemaya and Avtalyon came Bnei Bateira, and only after them was Hillel the Babylonian appointed to this position. When Hazal wish to refute the idea that a poor person cannot learn enough Torah to hold a position of authority, they say: "Let Hillel come to vindicate the poor", because Hillel was so poor that he could not pay for his studies and instead crouched in the snow to study Torah.

Now I want to take another look at the mishna: Shemaya said, Love work, hate lordship, and seek no intimacy with the ruling power. The Rambam's commentary must be studied carefully. 'These three have the ability to bring about change in the world' – he is referring to the love of work, hatred of lordship and avoidance of intimacy with government or rule – 'for without work one will be led to steal' – in order to provide for his needs. In the opinion of the Rambam, the concept of work is completely different from lordship and government, although the three are connected. If you love work, you will be assured of a livelihood by your own efforts, and so, if everyone works, it will bring about healing (tikkun) in the world. "And as regards authority and lordship – he who holds these positions will be sorely tested in the world, because he will be envied by others and this jealousy can cause him to lose his faith" – what does this mean? Is he referring to faith in the Almighty? Or is it the faith that others have in him? The Rambam continues: "As it is written, 'since he is appointed to rule from below, he becomes wicked from above'. In the same way, if one is on intimate terms with the king, it is very difficult to be saved in this world, and it brings about loss of faith." – work is regarded as a 'tikkun olam' while the other two are 'tikkun emunah', healing of faith. How does intimacy with the ruling power bring about loss of faith? The Rambam explains, "He will not pay attention to any thing except that which brings him closer to him (the ruling power)." Set against the historical period when it was written, I understand that the Rambam's commentary on Shemaya and Avtalyon refers to Herod's time, which coincided with the last days of Horcanus and Aristobulus.

The Rambam concludes as follows: "You know the matter of Doeg: despite the fact that the king with whom he was intimate was the Lord's anointed, a prophet and chosen by God." Doeg is mentioned in the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 22. He was a very important man and a scholar to boot. After Jonathan shot arrows to indicate that it was dangerous for David to remain in the vicinity of Saul, he (David) fled to Ahimelech ben Ahituv, a priest who lived in the priestly city of Nob. As it happened, Doeg was also in the city at the time. David departed from the city and went to Achish, king of Gat, who sought to kill him. To save himself, David pretended to have lost his wits and acted like a madman. In this manner he succeeded in escaping, and continued to flee. Doeg meanwhile informed Saul that David was in the vicinity. He did so not for any material gain, but in order to ingratiate himself with the king. The outcome of his action was that Saul killed Ahimelech ben Ahituv and another eighty five prophets of Nob, on the grounds that they had collaborated with David. Now we understand what is meant by 'intimacy with the ruling power.'

The Rambam's commentary is directed at every citizen, at each and every one of us. The Midrash Shmuel has the following to add: "How does love of work link up with hatred of lordship and avoidance of intimacy with the ruling power? R' Moshe Alshakar of blessed memory wrote: To the same degree that the teachers of Shemaya spoke of the work of judgement, Shemaya himself remarked how seemly it is for the individual to distance himself from the work of this office, despite the fact that they already instituted a 'tikkun'. Therefore he said that it is better to learn a trade, even if you will be despised for so doing, than to be involved in judgement, even if it gives you power." Both the Rambam and the Midrash Shmuel concur that it is advisable to love work. The Midrash Shmuel claims that Shemaya and Avtalyon were speaking directly to the judges just as their teachers did before them. "It is possible that his (Shemaya's) words are based on the teachings of his rabbis who spoke with the judge and warned him concerning matters of judgement. Now he, also, will not refrain from addressing the judge, saying to him, 'You should love the work of judgement and teaching, and you should immerse yourself in Torah by day and by night in order to be proficient, to understand and teach that he who judges justly becomes the partner of the Holy One, Blessed be He. But you should hate the authority (of judgement) and you should not take pride in the power that accrues to you by virtue of your position, nor should you wield power over the people. This is what we saw in Moshe Rabeinu who judged the people, and of whom it was said 'The man Moses was very humble.' And so also was it said of King David 'Do not cause me to be prideful." You, judge, should love your work. Do you love Torah, do you love to teach and learn Torah, do you enjoy your proficiency in Torah and your ability to impart it to others? Or do you really the power and sense of mastery that goes with the position of judge?

The Rambam has the following to say: 'Because he is appointed to rule from below, he becomes wicked from above.' These are harsh words indeed. I am reminded of Rabbi Nachman's Law (somewhat similar to Murphy's Law). R' Nachman of Breslau asked how it could be that mortals do not have influence in the world. There are so many people who desire so very strongly to change and influence the world, yet they don't succeed. That is to say, it works to some extent, but they have to keep at it. He claims that the explanation is quite simple: in Gemara Berachot it is written that whomsoever fears Heaven, his words will be heeded, because he is imbued with fear of Heaven ('yir'at shamayim'). Since his words are heeded, he has the ability to influence and change the world. Everyone immediately deluges him with requests, pointing out that if he really has this ability, he should be appointed to this task. And then, says R' Nachman, once he has been appointed, he no longer fears Heaven, and once he has no fear of Heaven his words are no longer heeded! He goes on to say that this was the secret of Eldad and Medad, who prophesied within the camp. They had some wonderful ideas and plans for improving the world, so it became necessary to stop them. The young lad who ran to Moses cried out, "Adoni Moshe kla'em" (My lord Moses, stop them). Rashi interprets this to mean 'appoint them to public office.' So, says Rabbi Nachman, you want to know how to solve the problem? Appoint him to be the official prophet – within a year you'll have total silence! And he ends by pointing out that the Hebrew for 'angel' and 'stop them' are transpositions of the same letters – they arrived as angels, but once they undertook the position they were 'stopped'. This is a wonderful observation by R' Nachman, but the Rambam takes it one step further.

Let's return to Shemaya's encounter with the High Priest. According to the Maharsha, the priest had been appointed by a ruling body, otherwise he would not have spoken to Shemaya and Avtalyon in this manner. But the Ritba questions this, claiming that a righteous High Priest could have spoken in similar manner. When the Rambam mentioned Doeg this immediately reminds us of Sforno's commentary on the previous parasha, parashat Kedoshim, where we read a series of injunctions (Leviticus 19:11, 14-16): "You shall not steal or deal falsely, neither shall you lie to one another… You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear the Lord. I am the Lord. You shall do no unrighteousness in judgement, you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand against the blood of your neighbor, I am the Lord." The first stricture applies to every one of us, but it is quite clear that the second verse is addressed specifically to the judges. But it is followed by 'You shall not go up and down as a talebearer.." which is directed at all of us. The Sforno asks why it is not in order, or rather, what is the significance of this particular order?

We turn to Sforno's commentary on the episode of Doeg. It is fascinating to see how the Rambam, in the twelfth century, the Sforno in Italy and Midrash Shmuel in Safed, all encounter the same problem and raise the same question. The Sforno explains that the first verse applies to the people, among themselves, after that the reference is to that aspect of judgement that applies between the judges and the people ('you shall do no unrighteousness in judgement) and then the verse says 'you shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand against the blood of your neighbor.' According to Sforno, this applies between the judges and the leaders of the people, and the reference is to hatred and slander of the king. He brings as example "Doeg and his comrades who slandered David to Saul, and therefore he continued to stand against his blood, to avenge himself and bear a grudge." But the Rambam said "He will not pay attention to any thing except that which brings him closer to him (the ruling power)." All is now legitimate and lawful, and the worst part of it is that sometimes it is done in the name of Heaven.

Shemaya said "Love work" – whether it is work in general or the work of the judges in particular. "And as regards authority and lordship – he who holds these positions will be sorely tested in the world, because he will be envied by others and this jealousy can cause him to lose his faith" – thus the Rambam, who also says 'Because he is appointed to rule from below, he becomes wicked from above.' There were never finer men than Shemaya and Avtalyon, the sons of gerim – converts, who were descended from the wicked Sennacherib. The representative of the ruling system received them with the remark, 'Let the descendants of the other peoples greet me'. The ordinary people loved them, however, perhaps because of the very fact that they were not from there and therefore they represented simple truth and honesty, without the trappings of the High Priest. The last thing Shemaya and Avtalyon wanted was to offend the High Priest – they stood off to the side, waiting to greet him, but the people surged spontaneously towards them and it was more than the High Priest could bear. Shemaya and Avtalyon were witnessing the collapse of the system, the battle between Horcanus and Aristobulus and the rise of Herod, and they realized where all this was leading, so they offered their simple counsel. They were the only ones capable of producing a president of the Bet Din who did not come from the ruling faction, and he, in turn, headed the line from R' Gamliel the Elder to R' Yehuda Hanasi.

I started with Rabbi Akiva – I never quite understood how it was that for the first forty years of his life he was ignorant and unlettered in Torah. After all, he came in contact with many Torah scholars – he was a member of Kalba Savua's household, living in Jerusalem. We are not speaking of a Jew from some small, far distant place who came in contact with the Torah for the first time, but one who grew up among the wealthiest and best connected people of Jerusalem. Kalba Savua's home was open to rich people and scholars alike. All the wise men of Jerusalem could be found in his house. Is it possible that Rabbi Akiva never took an interest in what was happening around him? According to the Gemara, not only did he never take an interest, but in fact he hated Torah scholars. The Gemara, in Pesachim, quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying "Give me a scholar and I will bite him like a donkey." How did this come about? I will now attempt to understand how it happened that Rabbi Akiva's students behaved disrespectfully to one another.

There is a Gemara that deals with the importance of judging all men in the scale of merit. From the social and ethical points of view, this is not easy to do. The Gemara brings a tale of the person who was, par excellence, the paradigm of this virtue. In Masechet Shabbat the Gemara tells of a laborer who was hired out for three years to a landowner who was apparently very wealthy indeed. At the end of the three year period, (Yom Kippur or Erev Succoth, according to differing versions), the laborer requested his wages, but the landowner told him to go home as he had no money to give him. The laborer suggested that in that case he give him something equal in value to the wages owing to him. The Gemara goes into detail: "Give me fruit, pillows or quilts – something I can sell in the marketplace." But his erstwhile employer insisted he had nothing to give him, and sent him away. After the holiday the landowner came to the laborer with three laden asses and the money owed. After they had partaken of some food, the landowner said: "I'm not leaving until you answer my question. When I said I had no money, what did you suspect? You must have thought something!" The laborer replied, "I thought to myself, why would a very rich man have money? I'm sure you don't have any cash – why would you have any? Everything you own is probably tied up and invested in something." Said the landowner: "What did you think when I said I have no fruit, no pillows or quilts, I have nothing?" He replied, "I told myself, everything you have is probably invested in something else. Anyway, you are about to marry off your son, so it's quite possible that you have nothing. I have worked for you for three years, and I think I know you pretty well by now." The landowner was astonished and said, "I would not have believed that someone could think such thoughts. As you judged me in the scale of merit, so may you be judged in Heaven." We do not know the identities of the landowner and his laborer, the story in the Gemara is entirely anonymous, but in the She'iltot of R' Achy Gaon we read that the laborer was Rabbi Akiva and his employer was Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanus who was also his landlord. In later years, when Rabbi Akiva became a scholar of repute, Rabbi Eliezer was his teacher. Thus, Rabbi Akiva became the paradigm of merit and virtue while he was still an 'am ha'aretz' – an ignorant person.

The Hatam Sofer has this to say: "We can learn from this that even an am ha'aretz with admirable qualities can hate scholars, because Rabbi Akiva said 'Give me a scholar and I will bite him…' when he was an am ha'aretz…" This gives even more weight to my question: If Rabbi Akiva was a man of such great virtue, surrounded by so much Torah and wisdom – how could it be that he never entered a Bet Midrash, a house of study? I permit myself a further question: How can virtue and merit be reconciled with hatred? How could it be that Rabbi Akiva hated scholars? Why the hatred? How can a virtuous person hate others?

In my humble opinion, there is something very deep to be learned from this. I think Rabbi Akiva never entered the study house and kept away from the top echelons of scholars, precisely because he was a man of virtue. Like Shemaya and Avtalyon, Rabbi Akiva was the son of converts. The same was true of Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanus, who fled his father's home at the age of 28 to study under Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Akiva was a remarkably talented and capable man, and it's certain that in Kalba Savua's home his work didn't merely consist of opening and closing the gate. Kalba Savua and Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanus were between them the two richest men in Jerusalem, so Rabbi Akiva found himself continuously in the presence of the highest echelons in society, and yet he maintained his scruples. But he was afraid. He feared that the 'derech eretz' that precedes Torah learning could be weakened if not enough attention is paid to it. He would have preferred to spend his days tending sheep for Kalba Savua, as Moses and David tended sheep. He would have preferred to remain ethical and virtuous, and he didn't like the message he was receiving.

How did he become a Torah scholar? This great ideologue – how did he ultimately connect to Torah? Quite simply, because he loved the daughter of Kalba Savua. The daughter of the richest man in Jerusalem, she told him that she wanted to marry him for two reasons – because he was superior and because he was modest. Nobody had ever expressed an interest in these qualities before, and for this reason he chose to marry her. She didn't say 'on condition that you go to study,' but rather 'I want to send you to the Bet Midrash so you can learn how Torah is compatible with your virtues, because we need someone to teach this to us.'

Rabbi Akiva spent the next twenty four years in the Bet Midrash, where he raised twelve thousand pairs of students. He was very versatile. 0n the one hand, he supported Bar Kochba, while on the other hand he became the father of the Tannaim. I have always wondered about his declaration "All my life I asked myself when would I merit to fulfil the injunction 'to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might'…" What does he mean by 'all my life?' How could this be, when he only became observant at the age of forty? One possibility is that he really meant 'all my life since I was forty years old', but today I interpret it differently. I think he meant 'all my life, including the first 40 years, I wanted to love God, but I had no idea how to do so – it was only at the age of forty that I began to learn how to enter deep within, when I encountered the system that Shemaya and Avtalyon were referring to, the system wherein the High Priest stands on the other side, the system which instructs us to hate lordship and seek no intimacy with the ruling power – like every system, it is problematic because every system is inherently problematic, and when the system is internal it is far, far more difficult. This is what I meant – all my life I wondered when I would be able to completely fulfil this verse.'

Rabbi Akiva has twelve thousand pairs of students, but with one simple thing he does not succeed – he cannot get them to respect one another. Many explanations are given for this, but what is really needed here is the simple 'pshat' – the literal meaning. The Gemara has numerous illustrations of how they didn't respect each other. One story relates how Rabbi Akiva came to visit a student who was ill because none of the others bothered to visit him. Another story (Gemara Minchot 68) begins with a dialogue between Rabbi Tarfon and his student, Yehuda bar Nehemia, who raised a point that had not occurred to his renowned teacher. The story continues: "Rabbi Tarfon was silent, the face of Rabbi Yehuda ben Nehemia was suffused with color" – it's unheard of for a young student to present an insight which his illustrious teacher had not thought of. It's only natural that the student was thrilled to have bested Rabbi Tarfon. "Rabbi Akiva said, 'Yehuda, your face is flushed because you have responded to the old man". You have bested your rabbi, but not in a positive sense. Your response was in the nature of an attack. Why are you so happy – look how you discomfited your teacher. "I will be surprised if you live a long life. Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rabbi Ilai, that incident occurred on the eve of Passover. 'On Atzeret (Shavuot) I inquired after Yehuda ben Nehemia and I was told he had died." Sometimes the very act of internalizing the system leads to a lack of respect. It is no excuse to say that your conduct is 'leshem shamayim' – for the sake of Heaven. Rabbi Akiva did not want to become part of this system. He would have preferred to spend his days as Kalba Savua's shepherd.

But he went to study Torah with Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanos. It is said of Rabbi Eliezer that on his deathbed he studied the Song of Songs with Rabbi Akiva. Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs – God's love of His people. There is a midrash in Masechet Kalla (86): "When Rabbi Eliezer lay dying his students came to sit with him. They said to him: Rabbi, teach us halacha. He said, What shall I teach you? Go out and be heedful, each one of you, to respect the other. And when you pray, remember before whom you are standing. Thus you will ensure that you merit the world to come." Two things: Go out – that's interesting. It's possible to have a chavruta inside the yeshiva, but that doesn't mean you respect me. You appreciate my interpretations, what I say and what I think, but it doesn't automatically follow that you appreciate or respect me. We are twelve thousand pairs of students, but not necessarily twelve thousand pairs of friends. 'Go out' – perhaps it means go out of here, or it may mean, 'go out of yourselves, go out and be mindful of your friends' honor.' And another thing, 'when you pray, remember before whom you are standing.' These are simple, straightforward injunctions. Observe them both, and don't clutter things up with your own ambitions and personal agendas. Go out of the system, leave all falsehood behind, and respect one another. If your only concerns are the Almighty before whom you stand and the honor of your fellow man, you have covered everything. This is what Rabbi Akiva meant when he said: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Rabbi Eliezer, who taught Rabbi Akiva, and Shemaya and Avtalyon, who taught Hillel – they were the 'rebbeim' of two illustrious tanaim, who greatly influenced all those who came after them. As we know, they were all men who came from 'outside'. Hillel, who came from Babylon, ascended to the presidency of Israel. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanus began to study at the age of 28. And so on. None of these men were groomed for eminence from within the system, yet they all preached the same lesson: love your work as a judge and hate the power inherent in judgement.

On Shavuot we celebrate because we have received the Torah. The same holiday celebrates the birth of King David. The journey from Pesach to Shavuot is Israel's journey from exile to Torah and kingship. The path may be scattered with roses but there are disruptions and obstacles on the way. As we continue forward, will the corruption inherent in the system that we are creating damage the 'hol hamoed' between Pesach and Atzeret?

 

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