In Parashas Emor (23:36), the Ramban offers an amazing chiddush: the days of Sefiras HaOmer are like the days of Chol Hamoed between the first day of Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres. This thought is echoed and expanded upon by the Sefer HaChinuch in mitzvah 306:
“The whole ikar of Klal Yisrael is the Torah… It is the fundamental reason why they were redeemed and left Mitzrayim — in order that they should receive the Torah on Har Sinai and uphold it… For this reason … we are commanded to count following the first day of Pesach until the day of the giving of the Torah, to demonstrate our great yearning for this glorious and anticipated day… Because counting shows that the person’s entire yearning and desire is to get to the time towards which he is counting.”
The Alter of Kelm said that during the original 49 days in the Midbar, the Yidden worked on acquiring each one of the 48 kinyanim of the Torah, and on day number 49 they did a chazarah on all 48 (Alei Shur 2, p. 396).
Pesach is not a one-time event. It is the beginning of a process, of moving towards a specific goal — that goal of course being Kabbalas HaTorah — whose culmination is on the Yom Tov of Shavuos. The 49 days of Sefirah that we count in the interim serve as the continuation and expansion of the simchah and cheirus of Pesach; the Chol Hamoed that bridges Pesach to Shavuos; a time of tremendous hisalus and romemus during which the gates of spiritual ascent are wide open.
And yet, it is also a time of national mourning, of aveilus over the death of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim. That whole episode, its aftermath, and the lessons meant to be learned therefrom are not coincidental to this tekufah; rather, it is inevitably bound up with the time period in which it occurred and is memorialized.
So how are we to make sense of this? On the one hand, we have the great joy and elation of cheirus and working towards Kabbalas HaTorah — days that are akin to the simchah of Chol Hamoed; and on the other hand, we cannot listen to music, take haircuts or make weddings — aveilus, plain and simple. How can we reconcile the two?
Chazal bring to our attention that when Klal Yisrael finally got to Har Sinai, it was in a state of “Vayichan sham Yisrael neged ha’har” — in the singular: k’ish echad b’lev echad. My Rebbi, Harav Moshe Twersky, zt”l, Hy”d, explicated based on the Maharal, that this achievement of complete achdus was not coincidental; it was the essential prerequisite for Kabbalas HaTorah. Harav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, made a very similar point in explaining that it is specifically with the Am that Hakadosh Baruch Hu was koreis the bris of Torah. Kiyum HaTorah is only when the Jewish nation is engaged therein as a nation.
Chazal revealed (Yevamos 62b) that Rabi Akiva’s talmidim perished because they did not accord one another proper respect. How are we to begin to make sense of such a seemingly harsh middas ha’din?
After they died, says the Gemara, “the world was desolate.” That does not mean that all the buildings suddenly vanished. It means that the world was desolate of that for which it was created: Torah. That is, continues the Gemara, “until Rabi Akiva came to Rabboseinu she’ba’darom and taught it to them. Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah, Rabi Yose, Rabi Shimon and Rabi Elazar ben Shamua — they are the ones who held up the Torah at that time.”
You see, Rabi Akiva was unique even amongst the Tanna’im. Chazal tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu himself asked why Rabi Akiva was not chosen to be the conduit for Mattan Torah (Menachos 29b). In Maseches Sanhedrin (86a), Chazal also tell us this: “All stam Mishnayos are from Rabi Meir, stam Tosefta is Rabi Nechemiah, stam Sifra is Rabi Yehudah and stam Sifri is Rabi Shimon. And they are all originally from Rabi Akiva!” What this all means is that an incredibly disproportionate amount of ALL the Torah we have and learn comes to us from the clarification, elucidation and organization that Rabi Akiva bequeathed to us!
Rabi Akiva, then, was one of the most major conduits for the transmission of the entire Torah. Beyond a phenomenal increase of harbotzas haTorah in the world, Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim were the manifestation of Rabi Akiva’s critical contribution of Torah-transmission to Klal Yisrael. In a very real sense, they represented the very continued existence of Torah in Klal Yisrael. That is why, when they died, the world was desolate. The metzius called Rabi Akiva was much more than the Torah-learning of any particular generation or place; his was the embodiment and endurance of Torah in Klal Yisrael for all generations.
The death of his 24,000 talmidim, then, was not so much a personal punishment of them as individuals as much as it was a Heavenly proclamation saying, “Not like this!” The totality of the kiyum of Torah in Klal Yisrael cannot exist within a framework of self-centered separatism. Just as the state of Vayichan — k’ish echad b’lev echad — was the prerequisite for Kabbalas HaTorah at Har Sinai, so too was it an absolute mandate amongst those who would carry forth the blazing torch of Toras Rabi Akiva, which is, essentially, the Torah of all Klal Yisrael l’dorei doros.
Perhaps that is why the aveilus of their demise occupies its precise chronological location. To emphasize and highlight for us that, whatever particular avodas hanefesh it may be that we are inclined to engage in during this time as we work towards Kabbalas HaTorah, we cannot afford to lose sight of the ikar ha’ikarim. That achieving the state of “Vayichan” — k’ish echad b’lev echad — is the most fundamental and necessary ingredient to be able to come to a proper Kabbalas HaTorah.
Possibly, this message carries urgent relevance for us given the many tragedies that have occurred over the past year, R”l; tragedies so painful and so frequent that we scarcely can find our breath. Although no mortal can really know why things happen as they do, we cannot ignore the fact that these things have all happened in the same time period in which the fire of machlokes has reached perhaps unprecedented levels, both within and without.
So what can we do? What is a feasible approach, both on the individual and communal level, to address the need for mending the fences and increasing shalom and achdus within Machaneh Yisrael?
I would like to humbly suggest that a kabbalah to make a concerted effort to observe the seven conditions to speaking lashon hara, as outlined by the Chofetz Chaim (Hilchos Lashon Hara, Chapter 10, and Hilchos Rechilus, Chapter 9) is both appropriate and manageable. Those conditions are:
Carefully deliberate whether or not the issue really is bad enough to require being spoken about.
Do not exaggerate the story at all.
Intend only for to’eles, and be fairly certain that your words will in fact bring about that to’eles, and will not inadvertently cause anyone to be nichshal in machlokes or lashon hara.
Verify that there is no other way of bringing about this to’eles without saying the lashon hara.
You must be sure that uncalled-for damage will not come to the subject of your words.
You must have firsthand knowledge of the facts (in certain cases, this condition may not be necessary).
You must first attempt rebuking the one about whom you intend to speak (in certain cases, this condition may not be necessary).
Now, this suggestion may seem awfully trite; I mean, who doesn’t know about lashon hara? But think about it. How often do we actually go through these seven conditions in our minds like a checklist before allowing something negative to come out of our mouths?
Of course, it is always l’to’eles; but that is the whole point — to’eles is only one of the seven conditions! Even if there is a real to’eles reason to say something, it may nevertheless be assur to say it if one or more of the other conditions is not met.
Particularly when passions run high because issues are either very personal or touch on important Torah principles, there is an acute danger that one may mistakenly permit one’s words to flow unchecked.
Habituating ourselves to the seven conditions as an inviolate gateway, without which negative words simply are not allowed exit, will create tremendous inroads in rectifying the breaches that exist in ben adam lachaveiro and engendering a greatly enhanced environment of true shalom b’Yisrael. And it is that upon which we need to be most focused during these special days of Sefiras HaOmer, as we longingly count towards the great day of Kabbalas HaTorah.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman is Rosh Kollel, Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.