Loving one’s fellow
By Rabbi Nochum Mangel, Chabad of Greater Dayton
The Torah teaches that at the beginning of Passover, the Israelites should harvest an Omer (a certain amount) of the newly ripened barley and bring it as an offering of thanksgiving to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Following that, they were to count 49 days — seven times seven, a week of weeks — leading up to the Holiday of Weeks, Shavuot. This paralleled the timeline of the Exodus, when Israel stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah on the 50th day after leaving Egypt.
Today, even though there is no Temple, the mitzvah of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot remains.
Beginning on the night of the second Seder, the 49-day period of Sefirat Ha’omer (the counting of the Omer) is a time of introspection as we prepare to receive the Torah anew at its end.
These seven weeks are characterized by a sense of solemnity, for during this period of time, the Talmud relates, the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were stricken by a plague.
Therefore, our law codes tell us, during this period we follow some of the laws of mourning such as not celebrating weddings.
The rabbis of the Talmud saw life as filled with teachable moments and always saw deeper reasons behind events.
If a disaster were to happen and we did not learn something from it, it would be a missed opportunity and doubly bad.
Of this particular disaster, the rabbis said Rabbi Akiva’s students, all of them accomplished scholars, were left vulnerable to this plague because they lacked respect for each other.
Lack of respect? One needs to have respect even in kindergarten, let alone in a school for the spiritual elite. How could students on the highest level be missing such a fundamental trait?
To sharpen the point: these were the students of Rabbi Akiva, who taught that loving one’s fellow is the fundamental principle of the Torah.
Of all people, how could his students have so failed to love that they did not even respect another advanced student of the greatest Torah teacher of the age?
We can approach an answer by considering a quote from Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Rabbi Akiva’s students were acutely aware of the highest standards of the Torah. They were also aware of our mutual responsibility: all Israel are guarantors for each other, we are all bound together, a model for all humankind.
Therefore, when they thought they saw their colleagues fall short, whether in teaching or in practice, they were not indifferent. Rather, they felt that love and honesty required them to tell their colleagues about their errors in the most powerful terms.
They did not want the easy road of going along to get along; they were not going to be enablers or hypocrites. They believed themselves uncompromising.
Holding themselves to what they thought was a lofty standard of honest, straight talk, they felt called upon to be brutally frank with their fellows about their shortcomings.
For the purest of motives, out of profound and sincere concern for their well-being, they were intolerant of the slightest wrong in their fellow Torah scholars. For the sake of love, they were disrespectful; for the sake of love, they hated. So their motivation was holy. But its consequences were terrible.
Concern for others is a good thing. Having the moral courage to confront another when necessary is very important.
Yet for good intentions to bring about a blessing rather than a plague, we cannot allow ourselves to lapse into disrespect and hatred.
If we look around us today, in this country or in Israel, the mistaken attitude of Rabbi Akiva’s students is, sadly, still alive and well.
Partisans of the right and of the left, adherents of this cause or that all have learned the lesson that one should not be indifferent.
They are passionate advocates of the good as they see it, which is admirable. And very many of them disrespect, even hate, all those who differ from them, which is a terrible thing.
Respect in Jewish thought is based on the recognition that in each person, there is a spark of the infinite. As much as we may disagree, as much as someone may be on a wrong track, as much as we may be required to challenge that other person, we may never forget about that holy spark.
There is something infinite in each one of us, and from that spark of Godliness springs all the possibilities we have of changing for the better, of self-transcendence, of teshuva.
Our health as individuals and as a society lies in respecting that Godly spark, in seeking it out even when hidden, in being inspired by it to love.
What good do we do to point out someone’s errors if we do not at the same time respect his or her power to change for the better? All we could possibly do is to rip down, not build up.
As we approach this time of the Counting of the Omer, let us heed its lesson. Avoiding both indifference and disrespect, let us harness our passion to the mitzvah of loving our fellow, and so bring a blessing to ourselves, to our community and to the world.
In that spirit of oneness, we will come through this time of the counting of the Omer to receive the Torah anew on Shavuot as it was received the first time, “as one person, with one heart.”