The Omer period is marked, in part, by restrictive semi-mourning practices. The reason cited in our sources is the tragic demise of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva due to a super-contagious diphtheria epidemic. One imagines they were all in close proximity and did not practice social distancing. The Talmud, however, probing more deeply, attributes their death to a severe moral failing. “They did not show sufficient respect to one another” (Yevamot 62b).
How can this be? Was it not Rabbi Akiva who famously taught “Love your fellow as yourself” – this is the overarching principle of the Torah!” (Torat Kohanim 4:12)? Is it conceivable that his students would have failed to take this fundamental lesson to heart?
The sobering answer is that 24,000 students of even the greatest of sages can produce 24,000 interpretations of his manifold teachings, all differing ever so subtly from each other. No doubt each one passionately believed only his interpretation was true. And one can well imagine each of them declaring: I must show my love for my colleague by convincing him of the true meaning of what our master taught. Thus each evinced disdain for the ever-so-slightly-nuanced perception of his fellow. The result: a lack of respect ill-befitting such notable scholars and 24,000 untimely deaths.
Was Rabbi Akiva’s life’s work all in vain? Happily, no. Five new outstanding students emerged in the twilight of his life. One in particular was moulded in his image. He became known, uniquely for a Tanna (Mishnaic sage), by an acronym – Rashbi. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Singlehandedly this disciple repaired the damage of the 24,000 others. But he did it the hard way – through trial, error, self-reflection and self-transformation.
The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) narrates the gripping tale of Bar Yochai’s escape from the clutches of the Roman Caesar who had sentenced him to execution for his outspokenness. It chronicles his self-isolation in a cave with his son for 12 years. When he ventured out upon the death of the Caesar, he saw farmers ploughing the soil and sowing their seeds. He turned on them with fiery zeal and intemperately demanded to know why they were forsaking the life of the spirit for the mundane concerns of this world. Whereupon a bat kol (heavenly voice) rang out: Have you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave!
Twelve years of deep, introspective, esoteric, spiritual communion with the Divine had estranged Rashbi and his son from normal society. They had become holy beings, approximating almost to angels!
But humans were not created to be angels. Both father and son returned to their isolation for a year but this time Rashbi knew he was there due to Divine displeasure. He self-debriefed in that year. On finally emerging, he said to his son: My son, the world has enough spiritual firebrands in you and me – we cannot hold others to our standards. Now he sees a simple, honest man carrying two myrtle bundles in honor of Shabbat – one for zakhor, “remember the Sabbath” and one for shamor, “observe the Sabbath”. Says Rabbi Shimon to his son: see how precious mitsvot are to the Jewish people that they enhance their observance in such myriad ways! The narrative concludes with an account of how Rashbi became not only a singularly renowned Torah scholar and teacher of both revealed and concealed wisdoms but also a great askan (civic activist) who empathically immersed himself in the affairs of the community.
Rashbi’s self-transformation from zealous firebrand who disdained his fellow’s choices to sage who sees sublimity in a simple soul’s service of G-D should inspire us particularly in our post-COVID world.
Ma’aseh avot siman le-banim. What was experienced by the earlier generations can serve as a guide for us their descendants. While we cannot know why the world has been afflicted by a contagious plague of mammoth proportions, if we look to Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who were similarly afflicted – and also if we look to Rashbi in his first ‘incarnation’ – we see that they, on their level, were guilty of a certain unbecoming hubris that manifested as “my Torah interpretation is true and you are off the mark!”
In many ways, that is the failing of our age. We think we have all the right answers and vent at those who don’t echo the same mantras. Advice for dealing with our plague, with COVID-19, even from medical mavens, has been varied, ranging from advocating maximal lockdown to pursuing herd immunity, from prioritizing contact tracing to emphasizing mass testing, whether (and when) it’s better to wear or not wear a mask – and the truth is we are still very much in the dark. Yet many experts – taking their cue from the dogmatic climate scientists perhaps – were absolutely certain that they had it right. Few were humble enough to say We know little more than you! Only now that most of us have emerged from our lockdown ‘caves’ despite the death-rate from COVID-19 continuing to be continually on the rise, medical scientists are expressing uncertainty as to whether we are doing the right thing.
Until Mashiakh arrives, we are never all going to totally agree on everything or indeed on almost anything. Not even in the Torah world. Especially in the Torah world! “Two Jews, three opinions” is a jest founded in reality!
But let us hold the Rashbi’s sentiments towards the simple, myrtle-carrying Jew as a banner before our eyes at all times. Just as we deserve our honest fellow’s respect, he and she deserves ours. Even if the coronavirus plague has served to teach us nothing else but this, dayenu!