Respect and praise in the age of criticism
By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
There is a recurring trope in comedy movies in which a leader addresses a group, asking for volunteers to “step forward.” Of course, no one steps forward. However, everyone but an unwitting innocent steps backward. The poor sap becomes the “volunteer”.
Not stepping backward is the same as stepping forward.
Applying that same “principal” to our times is a disheartening exercise in relativity. Common discourse has often grown so crass and demeaning that someone who simply makes a bland observation but does not actively tear someone or something down with ugly criticism is lauded as singing praises.
Certainly criticism is something we Jews are familiar with. Conflict and argumentation is woven into the fabric of our social lives. Ask three Jews a question and you’ll get four different answers.
Except… except that is not the Jewish way. One should never confuse intellectual and religious argumentation with criticism. Far from it. That we dissect every issue with an eye to uncovering every possible facet to the argument is quite different than the common practice of tearing others down. For Jews, we try not to make it “personal”. And yet, do we still fall short? Is it an unavoidable human quality to fall victim to the curse of “relativity”; is our behavior toward our fellow like the character in the movie, when not stepping back is tantamount to stepping forward?
Ironically, and powerfully, this period of the year, the sefira between Pesach and Shavuot, provides a lesson in Judaism’s lesson that not doing something negative is somehow the same as doing something positive.
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We associate the sefira with the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. This is the rationale for instituting various aspects of mourning during this period. The sages were clear about why Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died. The Talmud states emphatically, “They did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another.” (Yevamos 62b) What they are less clear about is what exactly that meant, to not conduct themselves with respect towards one another.
Of R’ Akiva’s biography, we know that he came from a very modest background and that his nature and experience combined to make him as kind and considerate to others as he was wise and knowledgeable. A story tells that once, when they had only a bundle of straw for a bed, a poor man came to beg some straw for a bed for his sick wife. R’ Akiva at once divided with him his scanty possession, remarking to his wife, “Thou seest, my child, there are those poorer than we!”
His respect for his fellow man was deep and pure. So how could it be that his devoted disciples did not “conduct themselves with respect” toward one another? Imagine! These were R’ Akiva’s students. Exceptional in every measure. They knew not only Akiva’s teaching but had been beneficiaries of the respect he showered on his talmidim, as he did upon all others.
How, and why, would his disciples behave any differently? Particularly to one another? The thought of it is really inconceivable, that disrespect might emanate from Rabbi Akiva’s study hall.
So what might it mean that these students of our great sage did not conduct themselves with respect toward one another? Moreinu v’Rabeinu Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky ZTL, whose recent passing remains so hard to accept; that this source of all Torah knowledge is no longer with us, no longer here to satisfy our thirst for all he had to teach, who was the embodiment of our sages and teachers, offered some insight into this profound question.
It is unquestioned that, studying for so many years alongside Rabbi Akiva, his students grew in knowledge and stature, rising to the level of tannaim. Unfortunately, their relations with one another did not keep pace with their spiritual growth. They continued to interact with one another as they had as novice students, not as they would in the presence of such great and noble scholars.
Their respect for one another did not grow proportionately with their learning.
One of the great lessons we are to learn from the Seferat HaOmer is that we must recognize and honor the growth and attainment of our fellow. As he grows in stature, so too must our recognition and honor.
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R’ Akiva’s students showed one another only the level of respect they had at the beginning of their spiritual journey together. Their level of respect stood still even as the “bar was raised.” What had been sufficiently respectful once was no longer respectful enough.
Respect must be aligned to one’s level of worthiness. Rabbi Akiva’s students fell short, Rav Belsky explains, because their relationship with each other did not keep pace with their growing stature. We see it in our own time, when students are so attached to their learning and their Rebbe that they fall short in the honor they should show their chaverim as well!
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To honor and truly respect a peer, a chaver. That is the lesson of the sefira. To respect the growth of our fellow, recognizing not just what he was but what he has become! To truly step forward and not just appear to step forward.
For those of us blessed to have lived and learned in Rabbi Belsky’s presence, the lesson could never be more clear. He taught, he explained, he communicated with utmost care and respect, knowing how much each would be able to achieve and attain. He treated everyone with the respect of the person he could be.
That is the standard that R’ Akiva’s students ultimately failed, to respect one another with the respect deserving of who they had become and who they would yet become.