By Simon Synett
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died in one period because they didn’t treat one-another with respect. In Hebrew shelo nahagu kavod ze-lazeh. (Yevamos 62b) The gemara continues that from that time, the entire world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva took on the five apprentices who would later become the leaders of their generation. Clearly then, Rabbi Akiva and his students were considered as the transmitters of Torah of their time, the greatest scholars and teachers.
Given that, it’s hard for us to grapple with the idea that people of such stature would sink to such a low level of behaviour in their interpersonal relationships that they deserved to be killed off by the Angel of Death. It must have been some deep and pervasive character flaw that was so destructive that they simply weren’t capable of transmitting Torah to the next generation. They had to be wiped out and Rabbi Akiva’s legacy would be passed through a new set of students. Can we put a finger on what the problem was? More importantly, can we make sure we’re not suffering from it?
In Avos 2:2, Rabban Gamliel tells us that Torah study is greatly enhanced by making an honest living, the idea being that combining the two keeps one from pursuing his baser desires and makes him far less likely to transgress the mitzvos. In fact, continues the author, Torah study that isn’t accompanied by work will no doubt lead to a rotten, sinful life.
The text of the Mishna is a little puzzling: For one thing, if the author had intended to point out that you need a livelihood before you can engage in study, then why does he emphasise the need to be doing both? As if to say that even if you have wealth, you need to work, not in order to make a living, but to prevent a descent towards a sinful life.
Secondly, Rabban Gamliel points out the flip side, that any Torah study that isn’t accompanied by melacha – work – is ultimately doomed to bring you to bad ways. He clearly wants to emphasise that it’s not that the lack of work brings you directly to sin, but that the lifestyle will eventually bring you down.
I’d like to suggest a novel way of understanding this that will help us make sense of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students for not giving respect to each other.
Given that there are whole communities of Jews who champion a lifestyle of Torah study without work, I think we can learn something by making some observations…
This choice of lifestyle is justified by reference to the mystical tradition of the kabbalists, as expressed by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in his Nefesh HaChaim. The theme of this work and the underlying philosophy is the idea that the physical world that we exist in is really a means to the end of achieving spiritual delight in the spiritual world.
The spiritual world is the real world and the physical world is a low resolution reproduction, to use a modern analogy. You have to see your actions, not as mundane physical, mechanical processes, but as spiritual levers that make things happen in a Spiritual Reality. True, you can’t see it now, but when your time’s up here, you will see how every single thing that ever issued from your feeble mind, let alone mouth or hands, has contrived to create an Eternal Life that you have to live out forever!
Given that, it’s hardly surprising that if you take this to heart, you’ll want to make sure that everything you do has spiritual significance, and you’ll want to minimise your involvement with mundane activities.
When studied in depth and in context of the entire oral tradition of Judaism, this idea gives us an exhilarating way of looking at everything we do in life, how everything we do has knock on effects way beyond the immediate visible results. It can and should bring us to a fine tuned sensitivity to everything and everyone around us.
With a focus on the spiritual realm, we can come to convince ourselves that any bodily discomfort we’re feeling right now isn’t real, or that the desire to sit and play computer games instead of working isn’t real. This can be a very useful way of thinking. And it really gives us an edge of self control that would otherwise be hard to achieve.
But there’s a danger…
In the hands of lazy people (and aren’t we all a bit lazy) this way of thinking becomes a way of shrugging off the things that happen to us in the here and now, shirking responsibility and ultimately complete disregard for other people and the whole environment.
You see, if you’re trying to place your life’s daily events within a narrative that takes place primarily in the unseen spiritual world, then you must be telling yourself quietly but constantly that “what’s happening now isn’t really happening or at least it isn’t what it seems to be”.
Do you see how if you do that consistently enough you’ll really experience life differently? It will really matter much less to you whether your food is tasty, or whether your clothes are ironed, whether your streets are clean, or whether your kids are screaming. And again, there’s something to be said for being able to achieve that kind of personal peace. I can see the attraction of it.< /sarcasm>
But it doesn’t end there. For so many good people it becomes such a way of life that not only do these things cease to matter to them but they stop even noticing them.
Then, from not noticing your own discomfort it’s so easy to belittle other peoples’ troubles, and especially easy because it’s done in the name of holiness. “After all didn’t we learn that this world is just a means to an end? Don’t you see that if you could overcome your small minded worries you could achieve eternal spiritual bliss?”
Do you see what I’m getting at? The more you focus on the spiritual “reality” the more you numb yourself to physical sensations and eventually you come to care much less about life itself. After all, what could be better for you than to free your soul from the bounds of it’s very mundane and needy body. Why shlepp this lump of meat around with you when you could be soaring in the heavens.
This, I think, explains what Rabban Gamliel is getting at in his Mishna. Torah study, that is engagement in the spiritual world, does go a long way towards freeing you up from your more basic urges. It gives you an outlook that strengthens you when you’re confronted with an internal battle. No doubt.
But without derech eretz – working hard for a living, your disregard for the mundane will bring you down.
Sorry to be trite but we need to get back to basics: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – this is a summary of the Torah, says the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Interestingly, the same Rabbi Akiva whose students perished for not showing respect. In fact it may be that he came to recognise this only after that trauma as I’ll show you in a moment.
The self esteem gurus will tell you that from here there’s an imperative to love yourself, for otherwise how are you to love your neighbour “as yourself”.
But Judaism is primarily a call to action so love isn’t defined by a purely psychological idea. Rather as Hillel the Elder explains, the deal here is that if you wouldn’t want something done to you, DON’T do it to others. Full stop.
That means that instead of trying to minimise your sensations of things that you’d rather avoid, you should actively cultivate a sensitivity to them, otherwise how will you know what not to do to others? You have to be 100% present in the here and now, feeling pleasure and pain with full sensation. If you do that you can start “loving your neighbour as yourself”.
Lo nahagu kavod – they didn’t treat each other with respect. Kavod, the word used for respect, comes from the Hebrew word meaning weight. This indicates that at the root of giving respect to someone or something is giving it the appropriate weight. You have to see the whole picture and you also have to get to the heart of how that person fits in, who he is and how he is important. When you do that, kavod, or respect flows naturally.
Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s students were such scholars, so immersed in spiritual pursuits that they just weren’t able to engage one another in a way that led to true kavod. They related to one another as they related to themselves, as primarily spiritual beings. They didn’t pay much attention to the outer features and it didn’t occur to them that they were missing out. But they were. Completely. They could not possibly be trusted to transmit the Torah to the next generation because they would transmit their warped world view along with it.
Rabbi Akiva himself needed to come to the recognition that love your neighbour as yourself was the axis upon which the Torah turns, and to transmit that through his new students.