These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: #1158 – “I Don’t Want You Spending Time with So-and-so”-Must a child listen? Good Shabbos!
Rabbi Akiva’s Students Were Punished for Something Worse Than Lack of Mutual Respect
Parshas Kedohsim contains the famous pasuk “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” [Vayikra 19:18], about which Rabbi Akiva stated: Zeh Klal Gadol b’Torah (This is the fundamental principle of Torah). This pasuk teaches the positive Biblical command of loving every Jew, or as the Ramban explains it more precisely, treating every Jew as though you love him. (Whether this mitzvah obligates an emotional feeling is not so clear, but at the very least, a person must treat his fellow Jew with the same love and concern that he would treat himself). Do unto him as you would want to be done to you, and don’t do to him what you would not want to be done to you.
As we all know, we are now in the days of Sefiras HaOmer, in which we commemorate the death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. One of the great ironies of Jewish history is that Rabbi Akiva, who used to preach V’Ahavta L’Reyacha Ka’mocha, had 24,000 disciples who, Chazal say, died because lo nohagu kavod zeh b’zeh (they did not treat each another with proper respect).
Imagine this tragedy—24,000 Torah students dying in a relatively short timeframe. We cannot even imagine it! There are large Yeshivas in the world today. There are six or seven thousand talmidim in Lakewood. There are an equal number in the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. Chas v’Shalom, can we imagine one of those Yeshivas suddenly not being here? It would be a tragedy of major proportions! And as a punishment for what sin? Because they did not have proper respect for one another! That is something we cannot fathom!
There are different theories advanced as to why Rabbi Akiva’s students were punished so severely for something which is certainly not a capital offense. One classic answer is that their high spiritual level magnified the significance of their actions inasmuch as HaKadosh Baruch Hu has a higher standard for tzadikim. “He weighs out retribution for them according to a thin strand of hair.” [Bava Kama 50a]
I saw an interesting explanation from the Chofetz Chaim, who asks this question: What crime or sin did they commit that they should be subject to death? He advances a novel idea: They were not punished for the sin of disrespecting their fellow man, but for the sin of Chilul HaShem (Desecration of the Name of G-d). The lack of mutual respect manifested by Rabbi Akiva’s disciples spread the impression in the world at large that Talmidei Chachomim fight with one another.
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the “lack of respect” stemmed from terrible machlokes and divisiveness that existed among Rabbi Akiva’s students. For Talmidei Chachomim to be arguing with one another, said the Chofetz Chaim, is a Chilul HaShem. Chilul HaShem is a sin that can in fact be punishable by death!
The Almighty Should Give You the Benefit of the “Doubt”
Just a few pesukim earlier in the parsha, the pasuk says “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow man.” [Vayikra 19:15] Even though this pasuk is ostensibly referring to Beis Din—how judges are supposed to act, Chazal say that the last words of the pasuk—b’tzedek tishpot amisecha—also imply that a person should give his friend the benefit of the doubt (havey dan l’kaf zechus).
When you see someone doing something that on the face of it seems to be a very bad thing, give him the benefit of the doubt. Try to be melamed zechus! Many times things are not as they appear.
There is a famous Gemara in Maseches Shabbos [127b] which provides three different examples. I will only quote one briefly. The Gemara illustrates how far a person must go to give someone the benefit of the doubt:
The Rabbis taught: One who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably. There was an incident involving a certain man who went down from Upper Galilee and entered the employ of a certain homeowner in the south for three years. On Erev Yom Kippur, the worker said to the employer: “Give me my wages and I will go and provide for my wife and children.” The employer replied, “I have no money.” The worker said “Then give me my wages in the form of produce.” The employer said “I have none.” The worker suggested: “Give me land.” “I have none.” “Then give me livestock” “I have none.” “Then give me pillows and cushions” “I have none.” Unable to obtain any of the wages due him, the worker slung his belongings over his back and returned home dejectedly.
After the Festival, the employer took the worker’s wages in his hand along with three donkey-loads of goods—one donkey-load of food, one of drink, and one of various sweet delicacies—and traveled to his former worker’s house in the Upper Galilee. After they had eaten and drunk, he paid the worker his wages. He said to the worker: “When you said to me, ‘Give me my wages’ and I said ‘I have no money,’ of what did you suspect me?” The worker replied, “I said to myself that perhaps underpriced merchandise came your way and you bought it with the monies that you would have otherwise used to pay my wages.”
The Gemara goes through each of the “excuses” that the employer advanced to his worker, and explains how the worker gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed—in every one of the cases—a scenario which would have legally justified such a response. When the employer told him “I have absolutely nothing to give you” the employer hypothesized “Perhaps he sanctified all his possessions to the Beis HaMikdash.”
The employer took an oath “By the Divine Service! So it was! I had vowed all my possessions to Heaven because of my son Hurkonos who did not occupy himself in Torah study, so I did not wish him to benefit from them. And when I came to my colleagues in the South, they annulled for me all my vows. And as for you—just as you have judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably as well!”
That is the synopsis of the Gemara in Shabbos. But, let us ask a simple question: If you see a religious Jew driving down Park Heights Ave in Baltimore on Shabbos, you can think one of two things: You can think “Well, this fellow suddenly threw religion all away” or you can think “He has a medical emergency and he needs to get to the hospital and he can’t get a cab so he is driving down Park Heights Avenue on Shabbos.
Now, human beings can have that doubt because we do not know why he is driving on Shabbos, even though until now we knew him to be a religious Jew. But with the Ribono shel Olam, what sense does it make to speak about ‘doubt’? What does it mean “Just like you judged me favorably, the Ribono shel Olam should judge you favorably”? The Ribono shel Olam knows exactly what is going on. He knows exactly why you are driving down Park Heights Avenue. He knows it is because your wife is pregnant and she is having a baby in the back seat. There is no safek (doubt) to Him about the matter!
There is a famous vort from the Baal Shem Tov. The expression of the Mishna in Avos [1:6] is “Havey dan es KOL ha’Adam l’kaf Zechus.” It should have said Havey dan es ha’Adam l’Kaf Zechus—judge man favorably. What does the adjective KOL (all) come to add?
The Baal Shem Tov explains: When judging people, the person needs to know their WHOLE history. A person needs to know where he has been, what he is currently going through, and what he will be going through. A person cannot merely judge based on what he witnesses right then in front of his eyes. The person’s whole life experiences must be taken into account before rendering a fair judgement. This is the meaning of KOL ha’Adam: It includes his history, his parents, his siblings, where he has been, what he has gone through, and everything about him!
That is the bracha mentioned in the Talmud. Of course, the Ribono shel Olam knows what you are doing right now. But the blessing is that the Almighty should take into account all the factors that brought you to this current action. He should generously temper any harsh judgement by taking all extenuating circumstances which are in your favor into account: “Listen, the person has been through X, Y, and Z – I need to give him a break!
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Kedoshim is provided below:
- # 009 – Prohibition Against Using a Razor
- # 052 – Prohibition Against Revenge
- # 095 – The Mezonos Roll: Does it Exist?
- # 143 – Inviting the Non-Observant to Your Shabbos Table
- # 190 – The Prohibition of Negiah
- # 236 – The Do’s & Don’ts of Giving Tochacha
- # 280 – “Lo Sa’amod Al Dam Re’echa”
- # 326 – Mipnei Seiva Takum: Honoring the Elderly
- # 370 – Deserts — Do They Require a Brocha?
- # 414 – Giving an Injection to One’s Father
- # 458 – Giving Tochacha: Private or Public?
- # 502 – Kissui HaDam
- # 546 – Treating Mitzvos with Respect
- # 590 – Sofaik Be’racha
- # 634 – The Prohibition of Hating Another Jew
- # 678 – Tochacha: Is Ignorance Bliss?
- # 722 – Stealing as a Practical Joke
- # 766 – Making Shiduchim Among Non-Observant
- # 810 – The Prohibition of Hating Another Jew
- # 854 – Tatoos: Totally Taboo?
- # 898 – Paying the Plumber and the Babysitter
- # 943 – Oy! They Shaved My Payos
- # 985 – Giving the Benefit of the Doubt – Always?
- #1029 – Must a Person Eat Bread in Order to Bentch?
- #1074 – Paying for Someone’s Expensive Medical Treatment
- #1116 – Eating Before Davening
- #1158 – “I Don’t Want You Spending Time With So-and-so”-Must a child listen?
- #1202 – A Bracha On Tums? On Listerine Strips? And Other Brachos Issues
- #1247 – The Kiruv Workers Dilemma: Inviting Non Shomer Shabbos for a Shabbos Meal
- #1289 – Performing Mitvos During the Holocaust
- #1290 – “I Don’t Carry In the Eruv, You Do” – Can You Carry My Tallis For Me?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.