One of the most outstanding features of the Jewish tradition is its willingness to engage in self-critique and look at the failings of our greats. Though some rabbis have wanted to limit this out of concern that we might misunderstand it, the Talmud and Midrash are clearly full of such observations.
One such critique is aimed at the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, whose death we mourn this time of year. Clearly, men of great knowledge and stature, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) tersely informs us that they all died because they did not honor one another.
At first, this seems rather surprising. However, in order to understand it, it may be useful to look at a more extreme but paradoxically more understandable expression of the same flaw: The famous story of Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon’s encounter with a man the Talmud (Taanit 20b) describes as “exceedingly ugly.” If that description strikes us as rather sharp, it pales in comparison with our shock at this great sage’s reaction. When the man greets him, R. Elazar is first silent. Then he says to him, “Empty one, […] are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” Though many commentators point out that the ugliness here was likely not physical, the Talmud still appropriately censures R. Elazar for his response.
The Talmud focuses on how inappropriate it was for R. Elazar to call him ugly. But I believe the first term he uses – “empty one” – is perhaps even more important, in that it sets up the tone and framework for R. Elazar’s attitude. Like any pejorative, it was likely meant as an exaggeration. Moreover, there really was a vast chasm between one of the top (perhaps the brightest) scholars of the generation and this simple man that even the Talmud describes as ugly. Even so, it reveals a far from uncommon thought process in which we totally discount the value of someone beneath us. Rather than seeking that which there is to learn from such people, we too facilely discount them as having nothing to offer at all. This is, after all, what is implied by the term, empty one.
If we know from elsewhere (for example, Avot 4:1) that there is no such thing as an empty man, why did so wise a man as R. Elazar make this mistake? While some of the reasons are specific to him and the particular situation, he was also likely moved by the natural tendency to focus on self and resultantly consider ourselves in a more favorable light than others.
If this attitude is more easily applied towards those who are really far less accomplished or talented than us, as in the story of R. Elazar, we nevertheless find ways of applying it to our peers as well. Since it is natural to prefer one’s own work, it is natural to discount that of others as not quite up to par. It is therefore rare for someone to think of his peers as truly equal to himself, rarer still to think of them as having something to teach him. With this in mind, we can go back to the students of R. Akiva. Whether their punishment occurred before or after R. Akiva become famous for his emphasis on the centrality of loving one’s fellow, he was not able to have this idea overcome his students’ natural tendency to love themselves a little more.
Given their failure and the obvious difficulty involved, there are many who find it impossible to imagine truly loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The pernicious difficulty of keeping self-love in check and not having it warp the way in which we see others is brought to our attention in the story of R. Elazar, who is the son of one of R. Akiva’s few surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Apparently, even after the death of R. Akiva’s other students, it was not completely absorbed.
Given that the plague occurred among students of Torah at a time of year when we commemorate the receiving of the Torah, the punishment comes as a stark reminder that Torah cannot be built on this type of attitude. If other disciplines can survive in spite of the arrogance of their practitioners, the same cannot be said about Torah. Indeed, that is why Moshe – a man who was simultaneously the greatest and the humblest – was chosen to receive it.
So in the case of R. Akiva’s students, it was apparently a choice between their survival and that of the Torah. Learning this critical lesson is what can turn their sacrifice into a blessing.