By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
With Pesach in the past and Shavuos in the future, we find ourselves presently in the Sefirah period. Each day, we count how many days have passed since Pesach, and by way of inference how many days remain until Shavuos. The Ramban in Vayikrah (23:16) refers to this period as a sort of Chol Hamoed. The explanation is that this period of the year connects the holiday on which we celebrate the redemption of the body from Egyptian bondage and the day on which we received the Torah, redeeming the Jewish soul and freeing it up to a spiritual, exalted life.More famously, though, we regard the Sefirah period as one 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.
All the 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 should 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 of Ve’ohavta lerei’acha komacha in this week’s parsha of Kedoshim (Vayikrah, 19:18), which means to love other people as much as you love yourself, still, it is not a cardinal mitzvah. Nowhere does it say that someone who doesn’t love his friend as much as he loves himself deserves to be smitten for that offense.
We are all familiar with the story of the would-be convert who asked Hillel to summarize the entire Torah in one sentence. Hillel responded to him by stating, “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid – What you do not want done unto you do not do unto your friend.”
Apparently, Hillel was translating the words of 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 rules 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 that “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 that 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 which 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 which win us short-term plaudits by superficial, evil 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 a modicum of 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 for another Mishnah in the perek of Pirkei Avos which we study this week. The Mishnah (3:11) states that one 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 one 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.
The Torah states in this week’s parsha of Acharei Mos (18:5), “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 mishpatim, you will merit Olam Haba. One who doesn’t behave properly demonstrates with his actions that he is lacking in his kinyanim 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 to hold fast to 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 lacked the 48 kinyanim 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, the seforim say that when a body part becomes diseased, it is because the portion of the nefesh which 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 feeds 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 the 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.
One 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 G-d.