By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
During the days of sefira, we abstain from the joys of listening to music and celebrating weddings. This is done to remember one of the greatest tragedies in our very bloody history. One of the greatest rabbis and teachers of all time was the saintly Rebbe Akiva. His brilliance and all-encompassing knowledge is legendary. When Moshe Rabbienu questioned Hashem about the purpose of the crowns on top of certain letters in the sefer Torah, Hashem informed him that there would be a man in the future, Rebbe Akiva, who would expound mounds and mounds of lessons from these crowns. The Gemora then relates that when Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem to see Rebbe Akiva, Hashem acquiesced and Moshe Rabbeinu found himself in the back of Rebbe Akiva’s lecture hall. To Moshe’s dismay, he was not able to understand the depth of Rebbe Akiva’s dissertations.
This Gemora thus gives us an insight into the intellectual prowess of Rebbe Akiva’s disciples (for they did understand the lecture!). And Rabbi Akiva had many talmidim, 24,000 to be precise! From all over the Torah world, the crème de la crème of Jewish intelligentsia traveled to drink from Rebbe Akiva’s awesome knowledge. And then, tragedy struck. The plague of askara, a type of diphtheria, broke out among Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and wiped them out to the very last man. The fact that only these talmidim died, and no one else, made it clear that this was a Divine execution targeted against Rebbe Akiva’s disciples. Unlike the tragedies of recent times, this happened at the time of the Gemora when we still had people vested with Divine inspiration who were able to tell us why such a tragedy occurred. The Gemora, in Masechtas Shabbos, teaches us that for the sin of Lashon Hara, evil speech and slander, one can die the death of diphtheria. This is, after all, a perfect example of midah kneged midah, measure for measure, since, for opening one’s mouth sinfully, a skin grows over the windpipe and chokes the person slowly to death. The Maharsha in Masechtas Yevomos says that it was for this sin that disciples of Rebbe Akiva’s had to die.
This begs an obvious question. Was it only the lofty discipeles of Rebbe Akiva’s who were guilty of the grievous sin of Lashon Hara? Doctors and shoemakers, plumbers and painters, cooks and the tailors –didn’t they engage in Lashon Hara? Why did the most horrific death of askara target only the upper echelon of the Torah world?
I’d like to propose that there is a very fundamental lesson that we can learn from this. The sin of Lashon Hara is the challenge confronted by the spiritual elite. Let’s look for a moment on history. Yosef HaTzadik was one of the few people who earned the title of HaTzadik. At the age of seventeen, he had already amassed all of the knowledge that his father learned in the academy of Shem v’Eiver. Yet, Yosef HaTzadik succumbed to the grave sin of Lashon Hara when he spoke the dibah ra, the evil tidings, about his brothers to his father. It was because of this sin that we would eventually have to descend into Egypt.
Another example is one of the greatest women in the history of mankind: the venerable Miriam, of whom the Torah Itself testifies that she was a yorei Elokim, a G-d fearing person (during the episode of the midwives). Yet, Miriam was publically shamed in front of 3 million Jews, stricken with leprosy, and put into isolation in the desert for speaking Lashon Hara. Yet another example is Korach and his cohorts. They weren’t a merely band of ordinary hooligans. Rather, about them the Torah testifies that they were, “Kru’ei mo’eid anshei shem,” quality people carrying a good name and those who were called to any meeting when critical decisions had to be made. Yet, they were swallowed alive for the sin of Lashon Hara and machlokes.
I believe the reason for this sad phenomenon is due to the fact that smart and successful people engage in the pursuit of self-improvement and character perfection. As such, they are constantly inspecting themselves whether they are lazy or greedy, selfish or arrogant, pompous or insensitive. As they work on themselves, they notice others who are oblivious or disinterested about their imperfections and, if they are not careful, they talk about them. So, a person might say to a friend, “Can you believe all so-and-so does is come to shul and talk?” Or, he might say, “I can’t believe the way he talks to his wife. Or one might comment, “I rarely see that guy give any tzedaka.” (Although this was not the motivation for Yosef’s or Miriam’s Lashon Hara.) Yet, we must realize this habit is the greatest sin of them all for in the same Yerushalmi that advises us that Torah equals all of the mitzvos, it also says warns us that the aveira, the sin of Lashon Hara, equals all of the aveiras. So, when we don’t listen to music, shave, or go to weddings, we should absorb the message that the crime of Lashon Hara is so heinous that the Torah of the 24,000 disciples of Rebbe Akiva was not able to protect them from the terrible death of askara.
May it be the will of Hashem that in the zchus of our Torah study we be protected from the terrible crime of talking bad about others and in that zchus be blessed with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
Pease learn l’refua shlaima for Miriam Liba Bas Devora bsc”y
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