Rabbi Feldman further explains: “The reason given for establishing the halacha according to Beit Hillel – that they were easygoing and modest – was not merely that these were good traits that they possessed. Rather, that was the very reason and rationale for the halacha to be established according to them.
“Thus we can understand the Gemara (Yevamot 62, which we cited at the outset) stating that Rabbi Akiba had 12,000 pairs of students…and they all died in one period of time because they did not accord honor to one another. But we should not explain the actions of these Tannaim, the students of Rabbi Akiba, in such a simple manner.
“Rather, we must understand it to mean that Rabbi Akiba’s students did not reach the level of humility that Beit Hillel had successfully attained.”
Rabbi Feldman concludes: “Since they did not attain that level, they were not able to achieve the clarity necessary to reach a final conclusion.
“Thus, their Torah study was not considered worthy to be transmitted to future generations of the Jewish nation because it lacked full veracity.
“However,” Rabbi Feldman notes, “Rabbi Akiba’s students were not taken from this world as a punishment [to them]. Rather, they and their Torah study were removed due to the aforementioned reasons.”
We ourselves would be wise to heed Rabbi Akiba’s famous teaching (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4) which he extrapolates from Leviticus 19:18, “Ve’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha: Zeh k’lal gadol baTorah – “Love your fellow as yourself: This is a great principle in the Torah.” Let us use this time of sefira to improve our treatment of each other and approach Shavuot worthy of receiving the Torah as well as Moshiach.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.