By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
With Pesach behind us and Shavuos in the future, we are presently in the Sefirah period. Every evening we count how many days have passed since Pesach, and by way of inference how many days remain until Shavuos.
The Ramban in Vayikra (23:16) refers to this period as a sort of Chol Hamoed. The explanation is that this period connects the Yom Tov on which we celebrate the physical redemption of the Jews from Egyptian bondage and the day on which we received the Torah, which in essence redeemed the Jewish soul and freed it, allowing a spiritual, exalted life.
More famously, though, we regard the Sefirah period as a time of mourning and sadness. The Gemara in Yevamos (62a) tells us that, until this day, we mourn the 24,000 students of Rabi Akiva who died during this auspicious period. The Gemara explains that they died because they did not treat each other with the proper honor due to them.
Meforshim are perplexed as to why this would doom them to death. There is no mitzvah in the Torah to treat people with respect. Why would someone who is disrespectful deserve to die?
Even if you were to say that the obligation to treat your fellow respectfully is derived from the mitzvah in this week’s parsha of Kedoshim (19:18) of “ve’ohavta lerei’acha komacha,” to love other people as much as you love yourself, still, it is not a cardinal mitzvah. Nowhere does the Torah say that someone who doesn’t love his friend as much as he loves himself deserves to die for that offense.
We are all familiar with the story of the would-be convert who asked Hillel to summarize the Torah in one sentence. Hillel responded to him by stating, “Mah d’aloch soni lechavroch lo sa’avid – What you do not want done unto you, do not do unto your friend.”
Apparently, Hillel was translating the words “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha” and telling the man that this mitzvah is the foundation of the Torah. To treat other people the way you want to be treated is not just a nice thing to do. It is not just another mitzvah of the 613 mitzvos. Rather, it is the underpinning of the entire Torah. In fact, Rashi reminds us that it was Rabi Akiva who stated that “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha” is one of the major pillars of the Torah.
Thus, one who is not considerate of other people’s feelings is lacking in his knowledge of Torah. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:17) goes further and states, “Im ein derech eretz, ein Torah – Without proper conduct, there can be no Torah.” One who is unable to conduct himself properly cannot be a student of Torah.
Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that the Torah cannot fit into a person who does not have proper middos. Rav Chaim Vital explains it further in Shaarei Kedusha (1:2), where he states that proper middos are the seat and foundation for the nefesh hasichlis, and without them, the nefesh cannot carry out its obligation to observe the mitzvos. He explains that this is the reason there is no commandment in the Torah for a person to behave properly, for the obligation to be a mentch precedes the mitzvos, and without it, we cannot observe any of the 613 mitzvos.
With this, we can understand the Mishnah in the third perek of Pirkei Avos that states, “One who finds favor in the eyes of man finds favor in the eyes of Hashem.” The Mishnah does not mean to say that we should engage in activities that win us short-term plaudits from superficial and power-hungry people who appreciate chanifah. Rather, the intention of the Mishnah is to teach us that whatever we say or do as we interact with others must be in consonance with the laws of derech eretz and middos tovos.
We must deal with everyone with respect and decency. Even when we find it necessary to admonish, it must be done in a way that does not cause people to view the Torah as anything other than a Toras Chesed.
This may be an explanation of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:11), which states that someone who publicly embarrasses another person has no share in the World to Come, even if he has Torah and maasim tovim to his credit. Perhaps we can understand the Mishnah allegorically to be saying that because someone who lacks the ability to treat people properly is lacking in the knowledge of Torah, a person like this will come to make mistakes in halacha and in Torah. He will thus deviate from the path of Torah and eventually end up losing his share in the World to Come.
Last week, in Parshas Acharei Mos (18:5), we read the posuk which states, “Vochai bohem… And you shall live if you will follow the precepts of the Torah.” Rashi, in his commentary, explains that this refers to life in the World to Come.
If you follow the chukim and mishpotim, you will merit Olam Haba. One who doesn’t behave properly demonstrates with his actions that he is lacking in his kinyonim of Torah. Therefore, he will lose his share in Olam Haba, which is promised to those who follow the mitzvos.
The Torah is referred to as a Tree of Life. One who grasps onto it merits a full life in this world and the next. But in order to develop the ability to grab onto Torah and internalize it, we must study and inculcate the 48 methods of acquiring Torah. Most of those 48 steps of attainment relate to the way we deal with each other. In order to behave properly bein adam laMakom, we have to first succeed in the way we interact bein adam lachaveiro.
Since the talmidim of Rabi Akiva demonstrated through their personal conduct bein adam lachaveiro that they were lacking in the 48 kinyonim of Torah, they cut themselves off from the life-giving abilities of Torah and didn’t merit to fulfill their shlichus in this world as talmidim of Rabi Akiva, who taught that “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha” is a klal gadol baTorah.
Since the greatest obligation of our lives is to study and follow the Torah, we commemorate until this very day the tragedy that befell the holy students of Rabi Akiva, because a certain aspect of their behavior was found lacking. The obligation to be people of impeccable integrity and behavior is a lesson we must all take to heart as we pass through the yemei haSefirah and attempt to make ourselves worthy of being given the gift of Sinai.
Furthermore, seforim say that when a body part becomes diseased, it is because the portion of the nefesh that sustains it has become damaged by sin and is unable to satisfactorily maintain it. Thus, teshuvah heals, because when the person repents, he removes the p’gam caused by sin, which has damaged his nefesh, and then the nefesh and the body part it gives strength to can be revived.
Since the talmidei Rabi Akiva were lacking in the middos that Rav Chaim Vital says the nefesh depends upon as a precondition to host Torah, their nefashos were unable to sustain their bodies and they therefore passed away.
Additionally, these days of Sefirah are, in essence, a journey from the exile to complete redemption. In order to attain that freedom and to arrive at the state we all so strongly desire, we must be prepared at times to undertake heroic actions. Sometimes we may be forced to make that trip alone, fueled only by our inner core values. The 48 steps of acquiring Torah are what give our lives their meaning and guarantee that we will reach our goal successfully.
He who achieves his migration via climbing the 48 steps will be free of superficiality and the inherent insecurity that accompanies it. He will be blessed with the brachos reserved for those who uphold the Torah and will find lasting favor in the eyes of man and Hashem.
Vochai bohem. Such a person earns for himself chaim, life, in this world and the next. We live at a time when the world is undergoing the convulsions that will lead to the final redemption of the guf and nefesh, brought about by Moshiach. We know that this time is characterized by chutzpah yasgeh, the propagation of brazenness and audacity. How much more must we work to purify our middos during these days of Sefirah, so that we will be worthy of the geulah ruchnis of Shavuos and the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu.
The Sefirah period has been filled throughout the ages with tragedies, and this year it has been that way again. On the last day of Pesach, Klal Yisroel suffered a tragic anti-Semitic shooting in California. This past Shabbos saw the start of an attack of a barrage of hundreds of rockets from the Gaza area upon our Israeli brethren, leading to loss of life and limb.
Meanwhile as this is going on, a Democrat Congressman introduced legislation opposing Israel’s “state-sponsored child abuse designed to intimidate and terrorize Palestinian children and their families.”
Last week, Congressman Betty McCollum introduced the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, H.R. 2407 — amending a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act known as the “Leahy Law” to prohibit funding for the military detention of children in any country, including Israel, according to a press release posted on her website.
“The bill establishes the “Human Rights Monitoring and Palestinian Child Victims of Israeli Military Detention Fund,” authorizing $19 million annually for non-governmental organization (NGO) monitoring of human rights abuses associated with Israel’s military detention of children.
“The Fund also authorizes qualified NGOs to provide physical, psychological, and emotional treatment and support for Palestinian child victims of Israeli military detention, abuse, and torture.”
While it is inconceivable to imagine that a rational person would attack Israel for defending itself against decades of Arab terror, the congressman says that, “Israel’s system of military juvenile detention is state-sponsored child abuse designed to intimidate and terrorize Palestinian children and their families.”
Calling for an end to American military support of the only democracy in the Middle East and grossly misstating the situation there, she said “It is outrageous that U.S. tax dollars in the form of military aid to Israel are permitted to sustain what is clearly a gross human rights violation against children.”
It is scandalous that a representative of a mainstream party twists the facts, presenting anti-Semitic lies to congress with impunity.
As Jews are increasingly targeted, in Israel, Europe and the United States, American Jews must revisit their historic support for the Democrat party, which has become a home for Jew haters, socialists and communists. The target of their ire, President Trump has proven himself to be the greatest friend the Jewish people have had in the White House, a man who continuously proves himself most deserving of our appreciation and support.
Let us all resolve to really stamp out strife, improve our conduct and do what we know we must to make the world a better place, for ourselves and for our redemption.