Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Lesson of Rabi Akiva

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we proceed through the Sefirah period, it behooves us to contemplate what it is that we mourn for during these weeks.

We all know that it was during this period that 24,000 talmidim of the great tanna Rabi Akiva passed away because they did not display proper respect for one another.

The Chevron rosh yeshiva, Rav Simcha Zissel Broide zt”l, asks what the connection is in the fact that they were students of Rabi Akiva. Obviously there is a connection, for otherwise Chazal would simply say that 24,000 talmidei chachomim died during this period. The fact that they are described as students of Rabi Akiva would seem to indicate that there is something about Rabi Akiva that they could have learned and didn’t, and thus they were punished.

Rav Broide explains that the Gemara in various places describes the princely middos of Rabi Akiva and the way he judged people and dealt with them. As his students, these talmidei chachomim should have learned that from him and dealt with each other with the same degree of respect their rebbi showed for others.

The Gemara in Maseches Yevamos [62b] says that the talmidim died from an illness described as eskerah. In Maseches Shabbos [33b], the Gemara indicates that eskerah is inflicted on a person as a punishment for bittul Torah. Why, then, did Rabi Akiva’s talmidim die from this illness if their sin was not treating each other with proper respect?

I was discussing this question with my dear friend, Rav Ari Levitan, and he offered a fascinating explanation. The talmidei Rabi Akiva were punished with eskerah because they didn’t realize that their rebbi’s greatness in Torah was brought about through his sterling character. They didn’t grasp that gadlus baTorah is dependent upon gadlus in the mitzvos of bein odom lachaveiro.

Rabi Akiva was a latecomer to Torah study and it was only because his determination to grow in learning was coupled with an outstanding commitment to the mem ches devorim shehaTorah nikneis bohem that he was able to be become a great tanna.

Thus, since their behavior with each other indicated that they did not learn from their rebbi what is required for limud haTorah, they were punished with eskerah.

And why is this so? Because if you want to reach people, if you really care about them and want to influence them, you have to address them with respect. Nobody likes being talked down to. Most people respond to positive reinforcement and tune out negativity.

If you want to be able to learn properly with your chavrusah and talmidim, you have to excel in the mem ches devorim shehaTorah nikneis bohem.

This fact, as simple and obvious as it seems, appears to totally escape some people.

If you behave with mentchlichkeit and treat people properly, you really can effect change. People will respect you and listen to you. You will be able to help people improve their shemiras hamitzvos, their learning, their understanding of life and their acceptance of their lot.

People who bring out the best in others embody optimism. They smile at the world and the world smiles back. They can be plain, simple people, but if they remind others of their greatness instead of berating them, they can bring out a person’s latent intelligence and goodness. This can be achieved sometimes merely by showing simple respect.

The greatest teacher is not the one who knows the most, and the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who motivates people to accomplish the greatest things. The greatest teacher is the one who can crawl into the soul of his students and reach them.

A quality teacher gives a child the feeling that he has the confidence in him and recognizes his potential for achieving greatness. The rebbi or morah lets the student know that they share their dreams, hopes and goals for the future, and will do all they can to help the child attain them.

You can convince people to do good by appealing to their hopes or by playing to their fears. The one who excels makes sure to speak to their confidence and not to their doubts, with facts and not with fantasy. People respond much better when they are treated with dignity and are more likely to rise to the challenge.

For leaders and teachers, as well as parents and friends, communication is a lot more than mere words. What matters is not necessarily what we say, but how we say it. We can inspire and motivate when we communicate with genuine love and care. By imparting our true feelings effectively, our children, students, friends and acquaintances will understand that they are admired and loved by people who have confidence in their abilities.

Others might be superior to us in intelligence, experience and diplomacy, but if we care to pay attention and exercise greater care when speaking to people, we can accomplish so much more. Our lives have a deeper purpose than simply fulfilling selfish impulses. There is so much we can do and accomplish if we only set our minds to it. There is no excuse to say that we are not smart enough. There is no excuse to say that we are not capable. It is no defense to say that we don’t have proper experience or ability.

We have to care about others. We must have passion in what we do. And we have to let it show. We can all help other people and remind them of their inherent greatness. We have to be optimistic about life and about our own abilities, and we have to convey that to others.

Every one of us possesses the ability to affect the world. If we would only maximize our G-d-given abilities to study Torah as well as we possibly can; if we would only utilize the strength that Hashem gave us to build instead of destroy, to be optimistic instead of pessimistic; if only we would use the brachos that Hashem blessed us with to shower others with material and spiritual goodness, we could transform the world, person by person, station by station, town by town, and city by city.

Let’s gather in the rays of Torah and spread its light. We each have the ability to light up the world with Torah and maasim tovim, with intelligence and splendor. We can reach out and touch people, if only we tried. If only we cared enough.

At the same time, we should recognize that the heroes of our world are the people who train and prepare themselves as professionals in Torah. For years on end, their preoccupation is to excel in the knowledge and practice of the gift that is the focus of our lives.

Talented and able as they are, they give up financially promising and socially prestigious careers in order to keep Torah learning alive and then serve as rabbonim, poskim, rabbeim and roshei yeshiva. We need to treat them more consciously and more visibly with honor and respect, and inculcate that esteem sincerely within our own hearts. We need to afford them an honorable living and the kavod that should be spontaneously felt for experts of Torah.

Brave men and women enter classrooms daily to be mechanech our children. They work long hours under difficult conditions, their salaries are nothing to write home about, and they are not exactly awash in fame and honor. They bear an intense inner-calling welling up from deep within their beings, which motivates them to dedicate their lives to transmitting the message of Torah to the next generation.

They deserve our appreciation. They deserve to know that their dedication to their task is recognized and admired. They need to know that they have the eternal gratitude of the Jewish people for filling the gap that still remains because of the loss of the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva.

Let us demonstrate that we learned the lesson of Rabi Akiva as we display proper courtesy to rabbeim and moros, as well as to our chavrusos and everyone we come in contact with.


Post a Comment

<< Home