A little over a month ago we spilled the wine, as we recounted the plagues visited upon the obstinate Pharaoh who refused to liberate the Children of Israel. There is yet one other plague however, that is far more abhorrent than those recounted at the Pesach Seder. That is the plague that broke out close to fifteen hundred years later in ancient Israel, among the students of Rabbi Akiva. We learn from the Talmud, that among Rabbi Akiva’s 12,0000 pairs of students, there were those who perished daily, beginning on Pesach, until the thirty-third day of the counting of Omer. The Talmud further relates that the cause of this plague, was the lack of respect that the students of Rabbi Akiva accorded one another.
For close to two thousand years, rabbinic scholars have been totally incredulous at the very notion that the students of Rabbi Akiva could behave toward one another in such fashion. Although I never have considered myself a rabbinic scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I cannot help but feel, that three salient points have not been taken into account:
For us as a people, discussion, dispute and divergent opinion have served as our life blood. What makes us Jews so unique, is our ability to hold contradictory views and opinions. As such, it was our ancestors who were the true promulgators of democracy! Yet, there are times, such as a state of emergency, when democracy must be put on hold and take a back seat. Such a time was during Rabbi Akiva’s leadership. The tension that existed between the Roman rulers and the Jewish people it governed, was at an all-time high. With the destruction of the holy Temple having taken place a mere six and a half decades earlier, the lesson that the destruction left in its wake had yet to be absorbed. And that was, that internal dissension can prove to be lethal, when living under the rule of a foreign government. After all, wasn’t “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred that flared up among our people that ultimately served as the root cause for the Roman victory? Yet, thirty-five years later, the great sage Rabbi Akiva not only defied the Romans from a religious aspect, by continuing to teach Torah publicly, thereby ignoring a recently handed down edict, but he defied the Romans from a military aspect as well! After all, Rabbi Akiva was one of the supporters of Bar Kochba, the Jewish General believed to be able to overthrow the Romans, thereby casting off the yoke that the Romans imposed upon the Jews of ancient Israel! Surely, there must have been strongly held opinions regarding Rabbi Akiva’s political involvement! Disagreement about the understanding of a religious text is one thing; disagreement where students simply fail to understand why a religious leader would get himself so entrenched in the overthrow of a government is quite something else. However useful the exhortation to “never discuss politics or religion in polite company,” one would do well to bear in mind that of the two, discussing politics is far more dangerous to the well-being of relationships and at times even far more lethal.
Story has it that a renowned rabbi, together with his Shamash traveled to visit another renowned Rabbi to discuss a pressing religious matter. Although the host rabbi was informed of the arrival of a revered religious leader, the host rabbi had the visiting rabbi wait in line together with the commoners for hours until he was received. Sometime later, the proverbial shoe was now on the other foot. The host rabbi together with his Shamash were visiting the very same rabbi who had earlier paid them a visit. As soon as the rabbi who had been made to stand in line and wait, learned of the presence of his visitor, he gave instruction that a red carpet be rolled out and carte blanche be given to the important visitor. The Shamash was incredulous. “this is how you pay back one who treated you with such disrespect,” he asked his revered leader incredulously.
“Better he and his Shamash should learn to accord respect from us, than we should learn to accord disrespect from them,” answered the venerated Rabbi.
Once Jews treat one another with respect, a perilous plague will have been eradicated from our nation.