By Rav Shmuel Brazil
Our Chazal say that 24,000 talmidim of Rabbe Akiva died during this period because they did not give kavod to one another. How are we to understand such a statement concerning the potential individuals who were the transmitters of Torah Shebeal Peh? What type of kovid was lacking? They didn’t say please and thank you? They interrupted one in the middle of the other was saying a chiddush? Or maybe that remarked derogatory to one’s novel insight in Torah? I don’t believe for a moment that in these areas these holy students were lacking an iota. So what then was the lack of kavod that claimed their lives? Let us suggest the following.
The Chazal say לעולם יהא אדם ערום ביראה [Berachos 17] A person should always be smart and cunning when it comes to obtaining yiras shamayim. One just cannot be naïve but must realize the cunningness of the yetzer harah and is required to fight fire with fire. This is the pshat understanding of this mamar. Let us suggest a derush understanding.
Hashem created the human with natural defense mechanisms that protect and reduce the feelings of anxiety stress and embarrassment that arise in situations. These defense mechanisms can range from denial, projection, acting out, passive aggression, distortion of reality, fantasy, making up excuses, and even regression. All these defense mechanisms to save face and preserve the self image in tact can be likened to wearing clothing. Just as clothing protect one from harmful external forces, so too is the function of one’s defense mechanisms. Interesting to note is that the word for clothing is בגד which translates also as unfaithful or traitor. To us this means that when one experiences feelings of embarrassment and conflict because he has acted like a traitor by not doing or by failure to perform in the manner that was expected from him, then immediately he naturally falls into the protection mode by donning his emotional and psychological “clothing” called defense mechanisms. The word for clothing is also לבוש which is a composite of two words לא בוש no embarrassment. According to our presentation, it signifies that through fantasy and denial and blaming others for his own faults, one can avoid the embarrassment of ones failures.
The problem with defense mechanisms occurs when one constantly dresses up and uses them without eventually coming into grips with reality and his shortcomings, for then he is destined to become mentally sick. So too, if one fails to take on responsibility for his spiritual failures but rather saves his self image by excusing himself or being in denial, then he too can become spiritually sick. For some people, life has become just a stage and he is an “actor’ changing from clothes to clothes wearing different outfits for varying parts that fall under duress in varying emotional anxiety occasions. Never once does he dare gird himself with the courage to live up to his shortcomings and become determined to make a real change. So sad!
However the solution to this daunting problem is found in the Chazal we brought above. The word ערום also means naked. Our Chazal are telling us that a person should always be naked: strip himself from delusions denials and excuses for his failures. With what medium can accomplish such a feat which goes against the natural grain? The answer our Chazal is ביראה with fear of Hashem. If one fills himself with yiras shamayim and realizes that Hashem runs the world every second and his life is exclusively in His hands from moment to moment, that consciousness would rid him from all the defenses that block his personal growth and closeness with Hashem. Just picture one calmly walking in an alleyway on a beautiful spring day fantasizing about the most intense gratifying pleasure when all of a sudden three big mean looking men surround him. No, they were not looking for a tenth man for the minyan. At that moment when he realizes that his life is mamesh hanging on a thin thread, the prior fantasy, no matter how pleasurable it was, has quickly evaporated and it has become completely removed from his thoughts without any trace of it. Fear has the power to bring one into the hard core reality by stripping away his cloaked excuses of non realities. Even to the point that we are well aware of the following expression, that there are no atheists in a foxhole.
A similar gemarrah says that thunder was created to straighten out the crookedness of the heart. For the loud clash of thunder puts fear into the one who hears it. Just look at the word for thunder רעם. It shares the same letters as ערם meaning naked. Thunder is the heavenly sent fear and wake up call to strip man of his fantasies and protective gear which stunt him from ascending higher to fulfill his mission on earth.
We were a yarmulke on our heads. Yarmulke is two Aramaic words yareh malka – fear of the king. According to our understanding, the defense mechanisms, excuses etc are all conjured in our heads through our thinking process. Our head is the producer of the coverings on our entire being. Therefore, we must be constantly reminded that our head should strip itself from distorted evaluation of one’s true madraiga by placing the fear of the King of the Universe upon himself.
The period of sefiras haomer is a time when we must acquire the fear of Hashem and shed all the distorted emotional and psychological baggage that we have donned to save face when confronted with our shortcomings. Notice that the word omer is the identical word of ערום which again means naked. Our Chazal tell us [Avos 3,9] כל שיראתו קודמת לחכמתו חכמתו מתקיימת To preserve one’s wisdom it must be preceded by fear of Hashem. The chachma of the Torah we received at Matan Torah. The fear that preceded it was attained during the days of the Omer. The Omer offering was waved in all the directions to demonstrate that it is Hashem who controls the world and gives man his sustenance. The sefarim write that the gematriah of omer is keri 310 which means a coincidence a happening. To uproot such a distorted philosophy we are obligated to sacrifice the omer. This realization is the like thunder which has the ability to strip man of his false convenient beliefs.
However the original gemarrah which espouses the avodah of stripping oneself of hiding behind non reality perceptions of the world and himself, only applies to man between himself and man between Hashem. When it falls in the category between man and man, in the instance when his fellow man seems to act inappropriately according to the Torah, then one’s actions must take on the opposite behavior. It is then that he must dress his friend in bountiful clothing by giving him the benefit of the doubt and make excuses for his behavior. הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות. Hashem is called a מלביש ערומים. It is incumbent upon us to emulate His ways. Baruch Hashem we have many organizations that fulfill this by collecting clothing, that buy new clothing, gmachs, rent chasuna gowns etc However there is a deeper emulation than this. Hashem judges favorably מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט. If there is one out of a thousand malachim that renders a favorable judgement for someone even thought 999 condemn him, Hashem judges him favorably. Hashem is a מלביש ערומים in the deepest way by covering a Yid’s nakedness. So too, we must judge people favorably and even more so the talmid chacham.
This brings us to the next stage. The word kovid refers to clothing as the gemarrah says [Baba Kamma 91] that Rav Yochanan would call his clothing his honor. There are two levels to this understanding as we have explained above 1] physical clothing preserves mans dignity by covering his nakedness 2] clothing that cover one’s failures and lets him save face and self image – the psychological defenses. The shortcoming of the talmidim of Rabbe Akiva was that they did not give kavod one to another. In other words it means that when they noticed a shortcoming in their colleague, they did not attempt to give him kovid, that is they did not dress him with excuses and zechusim to cover what seemingly appeared as nakedness.
Now we must ask then why did they pass away specifically during this period of sefirah? Well there is your answer. In truth they were able the entire year to be melamaid zechus on their fellow colleagues as the din requires. However, during this period of sefira when they were intensely busy in the avodah of omer, of stripping themselves of their own shortcomings, it was too challenging to address their chaveirim with the opposite procedure of dressing them with excuses and a beneficial framing. The conflicting tasks at hand did them in. However in shamayim they saw that they were truly capable of rising to the occasion.
When I go to Costco, I always pass the section of organic fruit juices. One of the products has the name of Naked. I presume their kavanah is that when a person is naked he has no externals on him. I guess that they are describing the health contents of each container that they put nothing external within just the naked fruit itself. In reality who cares. But here I found myself caught with a fantasy that I wish there could be a drink that is called naked that could strip a person down “naked” to his true “nekuda” and remove him from all his self made comforting excuses and formulas to make him desensitized from true growth. But then again I just fell into fantasy with the drink called Naked which is the opposite state of being. In truth however, the sefira is an incredible 7 week formula to reach such a level of Naked by contacting your most inner nekudah and thus help us in preparing ourselves for the flow of chachma that is about to descend on earth on Shavous.
Take the challenge.