World of the Sages: Torah with love

It was Rabbi Akiva who coined the well-known adage that loving a fellow as yourself is a grand principle of Torah.

'In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand, for you do not know which will succeed - whether this or that, or whether both will be equally good" (Ecclesiastes 11:6). While some sages understood this verse to be offering agricultural advice, others interpreted the instruction as referring to different aspects of life (B. Yevamot 62b; Kohelet Rabba 11:1). According to one opinion, the verse is offering family planning advice: Having children while young does not preclude having children at a later stage in life, for you know not which child will continue your legacy. Another opinion explained the verse in terms of Torah study, enjoining even those who studied in their youth to continue their studies as they grow older. Rabbi Akiva understood the verse as addressing teachers of Torah, imploring them to continue raising students even later in life. His understanding was borne of his tragic experience as a teacher of Torah. Rabbi Akiva had an impressive 24,000 students spread over Judea. Alas, they all perished during one period between Pessah and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with appropriate respect. The world was subsequently desolate of Torah study. Despite the calamity, Rabbi Akiva did not retire; rather he traveled south and taught Torah to a new cadre of pupils. It was thanks to these new disciples that Torah study was revived. It was Rabbi Akiva - perhaps after this bitter encounter - who coined the well-known adage that loving a fellow as yourself is a grand principle of Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim 2; J. Nedarim 41c). Indicatively, talmudic literature is peppered with statements from Rabbi Akiva's later disciples that give voice to this ideal. This would suggest that the later students had learned the lesson of their unfortunate predecessors and thus were deserving of carrying the mantle of the tradition and transmitting Torah to future generations. To cite a few examples of many: One of Rabbi Akiva's students, Rabbi Meir, exhorted people to be humble of spirit before every person (M. Avot 4:10). Moreover, he put this teaching into practice (J. Sota 16d). Each week Rabbi Meir would speak in the synagogue on Friday night and a certain woman conscientiously attended. One time he presented a longer than usual sermon. By the time the woman arrived home, the candle had burned out and the house was plunged into darkness. As she entered her home, she was met with the gruff voice of her husband: "Where have you been?" When she told her husband that she had gone to listen to the sermon, he responded by swearing that she could not enter the house until she had spat in the face of the speaker. A divine message was sent to Rabbi Meir explaining the predicament. He cunningly pretended to have a sore eye and requested that a woman who knew how to heal him should come forward. A neighbor of the pious woman urged her to take advantage of this opportunity. When the woman arrived before Rabbi Meir, he asked her: "Do you know how to heal the eye?" As the women stood before him she was overwhelmed and responded truthfully: "No." Rabbi Meir told her: "Spit in my eye seven times and it will heal." After she had dutifully spat, Rabbi Meir turned to her: "Now go and tell your husband that though he told you to spit only once, you spat seven times!" The students present were astounded: "Rabbi, do we disgrace Torah thus? Had you told us about this episode we would have brought the husband and given him lashes until he forgave his wife!" Rabbi Meir calmly responded that for the sake of promoting piece between a striving husband and wife, honor should be waived. Thus he demonstrated before his students the appropriate way to interact with others. Another student, Rabbi Yose ben Halafta was extremely self-effacing; he declared that though he knew that he was not a kohen, if his colleagues would tell him to ascend the platform and offer the priestly blessing, he would acquiesce (B. Shabbat 118b). Rabbi Nehemia - another of Rabbi Akiva's later disciples - spoke of the severity of the sin of baseless hatred, ominously citing some of the punishments that may be incurred (B. Shabbat 32b): There may be strife in the person's household, women may suffer miscarriage and children may die prematurely. Another example can be drawn from Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai who in our tractate commented on the silence of Tamar when she was accused of prostitution (Genesis 38). Instead of vociferously protesting as she was being taken to be burned for her iniquity, Tamar sent a covert message to her former father-in-law Judah, indicating that he was the father of her children. Thus Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai concludes: A person should allow oneself to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than publicly embarrass another (B. Brachot 43b). To be a bearer of the tradition, knowledge is not the only prerequisite. Passing on a pure Torah can only be done by those whose attributes are purified from all matter of dross. From those thousands of students there is no remnant of their Torah within the walls of our beit midrash, their books do not adorn our shelves and we do not continue to discuss the minutiae of their every statement. The grim story of Rabbi Akiva's students calls into question the value of Torah that is devoid of appropriate interpersonal behavior. Thankfully, there was at least a small cohort of students whose conduct was beyond question; alongside their discussions of finer points of law, they also bid future generations to refine, hone and enhance their treatment of others. It is the Torah of these scholars, whose ethical wills are filled with love and respect for their peers, which forms the basis of the corpus of oral law (B. Sanhedrin 86a). It is their Torah which we continue to study today, and it is their legacy which we seek to bequeath to our children. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.