Dealing with Adversity-Lessons of Rabi Akiva’s Talmidim

The Gemara in Yevamos 62b tells us that in the weeks of Sefiras Haomer, 24,000 talmidim

of Rabi Akiva perished during a plague. The reason was that lo nohagu kovod zeh lazeh, they did not treat each other with respect. This needs to be understood in a relative sense because these talmidei chachamim were on an exceptionally high level. Harav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, explains it possibly referred to profound disagreements

regarding understanding the words of Torah: “They might have lashed out at one another with

hurtful words, You ignoramus! How could you say that? How could you say such a pshat in the


We need to know that Hashem created people with a healthy need for their worth to be acknowledged by others. They crave words of encouragement and recognition. These are nutrients that can motivate them to accomplish,

especially if people in their lives communicate in a way that diminishes their worth. We give others honor by treating them with admiration and respect because of who they are or what they have accomplished.

Harav Mordechai Schwab, zt”l, who served as Mashgiach of Yeshiva Bais Shraga in Monsey, once explained to a mechanech what it means to view a person as a tzelem Elokim — containing an element that reflects the Divine. He said that if there are three talmidim — one outstanding, one average and one weak — they should be viewed

not in terms of their academic prowess but as a tzelem Elokim. With such a mindset, he said, you convey the great value you see in them and the kesher with the talmid, or anyone for that matter, begins on the proper footing. Such a perspective will enable us to see opportunities to ennoble others.

An older Rav was serving in an out-of-town community. Despite his scholarship, this Rav was dissatisfied that he had

not attained more. Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah in Philadelphia, would call him with she’eilos to build his self-esteem. A talmid once posed a question regarding shaatnez which intrigued Rav Shmuel and after some discussion, he decided to call this Rav. They spoke and the Rav said he would research it. After hanging up the phone, the Rosh Yeshivah told the talmid, “He lives in a quiet community where he is not much sought out. He has such pleasure when someone calls with such a she’eilah!”

However, there is more to this concept of lo nohagu kovod zeh lazeh. The Midrash explains that the root cause of this flaw was tzarus ayin, literally “a narrowness of eye” — stinginess of spirit. Such a person resents the success of other

people. Only his own interests him. Harav Chaim Friedlander, zt”l, explains in sefer Sifsei Chaim

that this self-centeredness led the talmidim to begrudge the limud haTorah of others, an abysmal attitude since it meant they were bothered that others were serving Hashem.

Other people’s success has nothing to do with us. Rather than resent their achievements — which only causes misery — be happy for them. The Alter of Kelm suggested expressing words of joy to people we envy and even assisting them in some way — which serves to dissolve the negative feelings.

Harav Nochum Mordechai Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, zy”a, would radiate joy upon hearing of another’s success — a Rebbe whose Chassidus grew significantly or a Rosh Yeshivah whose mosad expanded.

After the loss of his talmidim, the world remained desolate of Torah until Rabi Akiva traveled to the south of Eretz Yisrael where he found five new talmidim to teach. This group of Tannaim ensured Torah would thrive.

One of these was Rabi Elazar ben Shamua. He gave expression to the imperative of kavod in our interactions when he stated, “The honor of your student should be as dear to you as your own; the honor of your colleague should be as the fear of your [Torah] teacher; and the fear of your teacher should be as the fear of Heaven (Pirkei Avos 4:12).

Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, would speak at shalosh seudos in his yeshivah. One Shabbos he was unable to speak and someone else spoke instead — in English, as opposed to Yiddish. The entire speech Rav Moshe was focused on the

speaker, even nodding his head occasionally as if he were agreeing with a point. Knowing that the Rosh Yeshivah did not speak English someone asked him if he understood the talk. “Not really,’ said Rav Moshe. “But the speaker took time to prepare a speech and deliver it. My limited understanding is no reason not to give him my full attention and respect.”

Maseches Sotah, in the last mishnah, tells us that in the era of ikvasa d’Meshicha (which we live in), “chutzpah yasgi — insolence will increase.” Indeed, heightened incivility is peculiar to the present time. The chutzpah can emerge at home, with elders and even at institutions of higher learning, as we have recently seen.

May we utilize these weeks of Sefirah to internalize and practice these lessons of honoring

others and celebrating their successes, both in speech and in action.

Rabbi Yosef Gesser is a longtime writer for Hamodia Newspaper as well as an inspirational speaker on various topics, including dealing with adversity. He can be reached at

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