Is it just me, or have you also noticed how our children are introduced to an unusually high degree of competition in school? Every time I turn around it seems they are involved in one or another extracurricular program.
Charts and raffles abound, often pitting student against student as they vie for prizes and recognition. Contests and programs for davening during vacation; committing mishnayos to memory; Shabbos learning; Chumash projects; performing acts of chesed; raising money for their yeshiva – the list goes on and on.
One of the defining aspects of the sefirah period is the expression of mourning in commemoration of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students during the early second century CE. The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) states that all of these great men died between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuos because they did not treat each other with ample respect.
At first glance this punishment seems unusually severe. Certainly it is of great importance to treat each individual with respect. Still, where do we find that the punishment of death is appropriate for this transgression?
Further complicating matters is the parallel account of the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 61:3) which states that the reason for the deaths was not due to lack of respect but that they “looked grudgingly” at (i.e., were envious of) each other.
This problem of envy would later become so clear to Rabbi Akiva that when he started teaching again with a small group of new students, he first warned them: “My sons, the earlier ones died only because they begrudged each other [knowledge of the Torah]. See to it that you do not act similarly.”
Duly counseled, these new students, who included Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose, achieved such collective greatness that they “filled all of Israel with Torah.”
The Ponevezher Rav explains that these two different explanations for the death of the 24,000 students do not in fact conflict. Rather, they express two aspects of the same issue. The more visible component was the lack of respect between students. The basis for that disrespect, however, was their inability to tolerate each other’s goodness, thinking it would somehow take away from their own rightful status.
Rabbeinu Yonah, writing in Shaarei Teshuvah (3:160), explains that one can fulfill all of the mitzvos to the fullest degree possible and still hate God. How so? If one is bothered when he sees others serving God as well. Such a person is not serving God out of a true desire to fulfill the Divine Will, but rather for the purpose of enhancing his own personal stature.
That is what transpired with Rabbi Akiva’s students. The grudge they held against each other was caused by jealousy – an inability to truly appreciate each other’s greatness. This, in turn, prevented them from treating each other with the requisite degree of respect.
This is not to say that Judaism categorically frowns on human envy. On the contrary, jealousy that inspires one to achieve greater heights, known as kin’as soferim, is permitted and even encouraged. But envy that fosters a feeling of resentment can only bring pain and destruction. The former causes one to look up to his colleagues and continuously aspire to reach their lofty levels. The latter compels one to bring his friends down to his level and belittle their accomplishments.
Those great students of Rabbi Akiva died because they made improper, selfish use of the Torah (“He who makes improper use of the crown of Torah passes away” – Avos 4:5). They were punished specifically during sefirah because they failed to uphold the honor of the Torah during the very period in which we ready ourselves to properly receive it.
I have come to terms with the fact that contests, prizes and recognition will continue to occupy a central place in our children’s chinuch for the foreseeable future. After all, we all know that if children are trained to engage in learning and the performance of mitzvos for ulterior motives, they will be more likely to continue along such a path well after the need for such external motivations passes.
It is imperative, however, that we educate our children to celebrate each of their friends’ successes, not just their own. They should be trained to build each other up and not worry about those who have outperformed them or who have received a better prize.