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by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The Talmud relates that throughout the 49 day period between Passover and Shavuot, a horrible tragedy occurred which sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish nation.



The Talmud relates that throughout the 49 day period between Passover and Shavuot, a horrible tragedy occurred which sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish nation. Rabbi Akiva, the great scholar and leader close to two thousand years ago, witnessed the sudden death of 24,000 of his students, rising scholars and great men in their own right. What was their crime that warranted such a massive plague?

The Talmud answers that they died because they did not treat each other with proper respect. However, as is always the case when discussing the transgressions of great people, their misdeeds must be understood on the lofty levels at which they lived. It would be extremely difficult to imagine that the students of Rabbi Akiva, the one who preached and lived by the fundamental dictum "Ve'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha - Love your neighbor as yourself," would be guilty of blatant disregard for the feelings of their friends. Rather, their shortcomings must have been in ways that for us would be considered minor (and certainly not punishable with death), but for them on their level were highly significant. Perhaps they disagreed with each other too harshly in their Torah studies; maybe they failed to greet and show care for each other as they should have. Yet they were still punished, and the rest of the Jewish people were left to suffer as a result of this irreplaceable loss. Whatever their transgression was specifically, the message is clear: The requirement to love your neighbor as yourself and to treat others properly is of prime importance in being a truly observant Jew and mentsch.

However, the question remains: Why should the violation of this mitzvah have led to the death of so many great men and future leaders? Why such a harsh punishment? Furthermore, in this week's portion which contains the mitzvah "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), the Torah appends the words "I am Hashem" to the end of the verse. How does that credo augment the obligation to treat others properly?

Rabbi Yaakov Naiman, a 20th century educator of Torah ethics in Israel, explains that the requirement to treat others in a dignified and respectful manner is connected to the fundamental idea that Man is created b'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. We are Hashem's designated servants whose goal is to emulate and serve Him in every possible manner. By treating Hashem's chosen people, the primary and most crucial component of creation, in an unbecoming way, we show that we are lacking in our belief that Hashem created the world. Just as a human king's ministers and cabinet members are important and well-respected dignitaries in the sovereign's court, so too must the King of king's chosen people be regarded as members of the elite. If we truly believe that Hashem created Man, how can we fail to treat others with the respect and honor befitting such prized creatures!


Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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