This past Sunday we celebrated our 33rd anniversary dinner in the Atrium
Plaza amid an outpouring of heartwarming support for the yeshiva. Over 500
participants attended the event, which was distinguished by the moving,
personal testimonials of three of our students who shared riveting glimpses
of their spiritual journeys.
Dovid Bernal, who embraced Judaism under difficult circumstances, gave a
fascinating account of his family's transition from being devout Christians
to observant Jews. Another student, Andrew Waters shared the humorous side
of being a baal teshuva, drawing appreciative laughter from the audience as
he recalled some of the interesting ups and downs of his shidduch proposals.
A third student, Matt Jackson, captivated the audience with some of the
challenges and triumphs of his personal saga.
In addition to presenting the awards, the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Rokowsky,
shlita,called upon Yerachmiel Simins, Esq, Chairman of the Board, to update
the assembled on exciting developments taking place at Ohr Somayach. The
evening ended on a high note as participants left inspired by the mesiras
nefesh and dedication of the many friends and supporters that continue the
make the Ohr Somayach dream a reality.
The period between Pesach and Shavuos that we are presently experiencing is
marked by a dual nature. It is on the one hand celebratory as we count the
omer in preparation for receiving the Torah. But it is also characterized by
a more somber nature as we observe a period of mourning to recall the tragic
deaths of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students. We can only imagine what giants of
knowledge and character Rabbi Akiva's disciples must have been, yet it was
during this period leading up to Shavuos, that a devastating plague wiped
out the entire group.
The question is what was so unique about these events, as tragic as they
were, that justified enshrining them as an integral part of the Jewish
calendar? Other tremendous calamities that befell our people of equal or
even greater magnitude did not receive the same status as the death of Rabbi
Akiva's 24,000 students.
The Talmud teaches us that the underlying cause for their tragic death was
that "they didn't accord one another sufficient respect." A serious flaw,
certainly, but was it truly so fatal and unforgivable that it triggered such
a profound tragedy? How can we fathom this?
The key to understanding this mystery perhaps lies in the most famous of
Rabbi Akiva's teachings, based on a verse in this week's Torah portion:
V'Ahavta L'Reacha K'mocho. Love your fellow as yourself, I am Hashem
(chapter 19 verse 18). Rabbi Akiva added to this command his succinct
observation that "this is a fundamental principle in the Torah," meaning
that this mitzvah is the foundation upon which rests every other facet of
the Torah and all its commandments.
The challenge facing the students of Rabbi Akiva was not a simple one. Our
sages make a trenchant observation about human nature. "As different as each
face is from another, so too do people's minds and attitudes differ." The
great Kotzker Rebbe observed that the comparison between facial appearances
and opinions is instructive. For just as it would not be reasonable to
expect uniformity of facial appearances, it is equally unreasonable to
expect uniformity of thought and attitudes. We are all different and should
be expected to express these differences in our approach to life.
Thus, when the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva studied his teachings, the
result was 24,000 different nuances of understanding. Instinctively, based
on our own instinctive self-regard, we each tend to favor our own ideas over
those of our peers. Once I have formulated an opinion it becomes difficult
to fully appreciate and respect another's approach. But the disciples of
Rabbi Akiva were expected to live in accordance with his quintessential
teaching; to love another as one loves himself and to respect one another's
interpretation as if it were their own.
When they failed in this test, it revealed in their makeup a fatal flaw.
Rabbi Akiva's students were meant to be models for all future generations,
yet there was a fissure in the foundation. Over time this hairline crack
would grow to undermine the Jewish people's essence, the love and respect
for one another that mirrors Hashem's love for us. These students did not
have what it would take to ensure that the Torah would be transmitted in all
its purity to future generations.
It is critical that we observe the lesson of this tragedy as we journey out
of Egypt and prepare ourselves to receive Hashem's Torah. When we love
ourselves and see our own vision and understanding as the only right way, we
find it difficult to appreciate others and see things from their
perspective. It is only when we truly love and endorse others on the same
plane as we endorse ourselves that we can transcend our ego-centered vision
and be prepared to internalize the Torahs truths.
By bonding with our fellow Jews and recognizing we all emanate from one
source, the Heavenly throne, then we can be truly one with Hashem and fully
absorb the infinite wisdom that is contained within His holy Torah.