The time between Pesach and Shavuos is a mourning period partially for the reason given in Yevamos (62b): “It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”
One of the questions asked on this Gemora is how is it that the students of Rabbi Akiva, who taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” did not respect one another to such a degree that it caused their death.
The Chasam Sofer answers this question by stating that Rabbi Akiva taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” after the death of his 24,000 students when he started over with 5 students. He saw that this teaching was primary for the continuance of Torah itself.
I would like to propose another answer. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (in Innerspace) points out that all emotions stem from the two root emotions of Love and Awe. Love is the emotion whereas we become connected, attached and united. Awe is where we recognize the greatness and uniqueness of another and we create distance out of the recognition and respect of that difference.
Rabbi Akiva’s student’s learned the message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” very well and they saw themselves and their colleagues as one unified entity. Love creates this unification. However, in addition to the needed connection resulting from love, we also need to see our uniqueness and the respect that flows from our unique role in the world. This is where the students failed and it was partly an over-emphasis on love and connection that lead to not properly respecting and recognizing each students unique greatness.
I told this over to Rabbi Welcher over Shabbos and he liked it even though he said over the Chasam Sofer’s explanation in his drasha. He provided some support of this idea from the Gemora on the same page (Yevamos 62b) where it says one should love his wife like himself, but honor her *more* than oneself which again shows the interplay between love and respect.
Another posssible application is the typical BT issues of communal integration coupled with the need of maintaining our sense of uniqueness. From the lesson of the Rabbi Akiva’s students we see the importance of both. If we continue to solidify our connections as well as recognizing and respecting each individual’s unique soul, talents, environment and challenges then perhaps we can fine tune the interplay between love and awe/respect and make our community a better place.