Rebbe Akiva’s Students – What Went Wrong?

This morning, Lag Ba’omer 5770, I delivered my regular women’s shiur here in Seward Park.  The topic: What Went Wrong with R. Akiva’s students? What message are we supposed to “take home” from the death of the 12,000 Chevrutot of this great sage?

At present, I’m uploading this shiur my shiur page, but I thought I would also add a brief synopsis that will be expanded upon in future posts:

Sefirat Ha’omer is the one mitzvah associated with reading or reciting that – according to some views – cannot be fulfilled via the mechanism of שומע כעונה.  This principle, “shome’a k’oneh” – maintains that by listening and having intention to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush, reading the Megillah, Parshat Zachor, and the like – you fulfill the mitzvah.  Ideally, the one who recites the text, the Kiddush, etc, should have you in mind as well.  For some poskim, however, Sefirat Ha’omer must be done by each individual.  It’s almost as if it’s treated as a מצוה שבגופו – as tefillin, immersion in the mikva etc – mitzvot you cannot do via a shaliach, an agent.  Why?

Rav Nebenzhal’s approach is that Sefirat Ha’omer is indeed a very private  mitzvah.   On our way to receive the Torah, the Torah expects us to examine the impurities that cling to us as a result of our own personal “Mizraim” and to confront those problems directly, not through an agent.  In the Kabbalistic tradition, Sefirat Ha’omer is a cleansing process that prepares me for receiving my portion in the Torah.   This refers to both my Torah learning and mitzvah performance.  Although the text of the counting is similar, someone else cannot “count for me”.  Each of us has to work on his or her individual issues….

Our sources indicate (see PDF of shiur on “Shiurim Page”) that R’ Akiva’s students suffered from a very nuanced  צרות עין or envy of their fellow talmidim; a certain very subtle sense of “triumph” for understanding an aspect of Torah not grasped by their peers.  This is the concept of לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה referred to be the Gemara.  They did not give “kavod” or “weight” to the role of their peers in sharing in the Torah.  The Torah that was given on Har Sinai, Rav Nebenzhal explains, is not the Torah of individuals, but the Torah of the entirety of Klal Yisrael.  Only with the unique contributions of every Jews do we tap into the totality of Torah.

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