Is (s)he the problem or is it you?
We find ourselves in the most exciting time of the Jewish year, counting down to the festival of Shavuos on May 26, which marks the “wedding” of G-d and his Chosen People—us! It’s shocking, therefore, when we learn that, instead of being a joyous time, this period—known as the Counting of the Omer—is a sad time in which we mourn the sudden passing of 24,000 students of the great Rabbi Akiva, in a mysterious plague, 2000 years ago.
No other Jewish holiday or experience is as long-lasting as the way in which we mourn these students over seven weeks each year from Pesach to Shavuos. An extraordinary memorial indicates an extraordinary lesson. A deeper understanding of the lives of these unfortunate students of Rabbi Akiva holds the key for us to heal our closest relationships—with our spouses, parents, children, and siblings. If, after seven weeks of meditative reflection, we can enrich our lives with its profound lesson, we will be ready to embrace our G-d as well, during the Festival of Shavuos.
The Talmud tells us that these 24,000 rabbis—students of Rabbi Akiva—all died because “they failed to adequately respect one another.” Considering that their Rebbe’s mantra was that “the Mitzvah of Loving your fellow as yourself is the foundation of the entire Torah,” it’s perplexing that his students—all of them— would fail to apply such a foundational directive of their own spiritual leader!
Upon deeper reflection we see that their failing wasn’t the lack of love, it was the nature of their love.
To love someone is to accept them as they are. That’s why we hug the people that we love—to serve as a visual reminder that we embrace not only their front that we see but even their back, which we don’t. A hug effectively declares that “I accept you just the way you are, unconditionally.”
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s judgment. When one criticizes the other and refuses to accept them unless they perform to a certain standard—that’s not love, it’s a form of unintended emotional abuse. Though often well-intentioned, the most destructive force in a relationship is not the lack of love, but the misdirection of love. Too often love can become manipulation, when the loved one is no longer loved unconditionally, rather the lover is actually working on “fixing” them.
Much like addicts need drugs, alcohol, or sex to feel good about themselves and reach their “high,” some people are addicted to other people. Early childhood trauma by highly critical parents or neglectful caretakers has decimated their self-esteem and they cannot feel good about themselves on their own. They are obsessed with the people that they love to the point that their happiness is entirely dependent upon the happiness of the people they love. They learn to respect themselves only for their achievements, but they cannot accept themselves for who they are.
When it comes to the people close to them, they cannot love them unconditionally either—only for their successes. Hence, they feel the need to manipulate and control their choices so that they too will be worthy of being loved. Pia Melody, an expert on codependency, calls this a “human doing” instead of a “human being”. This unhealthy love addiction is commonly known as codependency.
While all relationships require a healthy sense of give and take, pushing that line too far quickly descends into manipulation and control. Codependency says: “If you change for me, I will be OK.” Healing says: “While I care deeply for you, I will focus inward to find my peace.” Recovery is maturity: In the beginning, we blame others. As we grow, we blame ourselves. When we mature, we blame no one.
Healthy love respects the people you love and values their choices. Toxic love controls them. In their sincere efforts to fulfill the directive of their mentor, these rabbinical students loved each other too much. When Rabbi Akiva taught a class leading to inevitably different interpretations amongst the students, instead of respecting their differences, the students passionately tried to manipulate each other into following their reasoning. Love devolved into manipulation and control and quickly descended into a complete social meltdown.
In case you think such behavior is uncommon, some estimates suggest that 90% of Americans demonstrate codependent behavior! Do you know someone who put his or her life on hold to help others fix their problems? The stereotypical Jewish mother who lives for her children and refuses to find peace and happiness unless her offspring (in her terms) do is essentially codependent. Such love is toxic and this is why, I believe, the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents can be the most difficult in all of the Torah!
Identifying the illness is only halfway to the cure (Talmud).
The cure for codependency is DETACH—an acronym for “Don’t Even Try to Change Him/Her.” Just let them be. Respect their choices and love them without judging them.
Our excessive mourning of 24,000 rabbis 2000 years ago is so much more than mourning them—it’s about mourning ourselves and the joyous relationships we could have if only we could learn the lessons that these rabbis failed to understand. And that takes a full seven weeks to reflect on.
We celebrate the end of the death of the 24,000 students on Lag B’Omer (May 9 this year). This day is when Rabbi Akiva started all over again, with a new prized student—Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon corrected the errors of the prior students—he learned to love in a healthy way. When the anti-Semitic Romans were seeking to kill him and his son, Elazar, they hid in a cave for thirteen years where they studied Torah and Kaballah uninterrupted. When they emerged they encountered Jews of lesser spiritual stature than themselves and Elazar criticized them sharply. Rabbi Shimon reprimanded his son, teaching him to accept others for who they are and not to judge them by what they do. He then proceeded to ask them how he could help them solve a major problem they faced—never attempting to fix someone, just to fix something.
As a rabbi, I have had thousands of intimate conversations in private counseling with our members. I can tell you from very personal experience that codependency exists in our society on epidemic levels. I deeply appreciate the wisdom of our sages instituting the seven weeks of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva as a profoundly personal reflective exercise through which we might oust our own most challenging demons.
And there’s a great light at the end of this tunnel. Because once we learn to re-parent ourselves, finding our balance in a healthy sense of self-esteem, instead of seeking the validation of others, we will have made peace with ourselves and then be ready to proceed to Mount Sinai on Shavuos, when we meet our Maker in holy Matrimony. It’s impossible to love others when we cannot love ourselves. But when we do so, we’re ready to become the Chosen People!
Rabbi Dovid Vigler
Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens
6100 PGA Blvd, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418
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