BE A MENTSCH
The Talmud relates that throughout the 49 day period between Passover and Shavout a horrible tragedy occurred which sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Rabbi Akiva, the great scholar and leader of the Jewish people close to 2,000 years ago, witnessed all 24,000 of his students, rising scholars and great men in their own right, die because they did not treat each other with proper respect.
The Talmud relates that throughout the 49 day period between Passover and Shavout a horrible tragedy occurred which sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Rabbi Akiva, the great scholar and leader of the Jewish people close to 2,000 years ago, witnessed all 24,000 of his students, rising scholars and great men in their own right, die because they did not treat each other with proper respect. The commentaries explain that there were minor problems with the way they interacted, perhaps disagreeing in a harsh manner, failing to greet and show care for each other, and otherwise being deficient in various areas of common courtesy. Yet, they were still punished, and the rest of the Jewish people were left to suffer as a result of their irreplaceable loss. While such a massive plague is hard to comprehend, the message seems to be clear. The concept of "ve'ahavta le'reacha kamocha -- to love your fellow as yourself" is of prime importance in being a truly observant Jew and mentsch.
However, even once we know that it is critical to treat others with respect and kindness, why should the violation of this mitzvah have led to the death of so many great men and future leaders? Furthermore, in last week's portion which states the previously mentioned mitzvah (Leviticus 19:18), the Torah appends the words "I am Hashem" to the end of the verse. How does such a basic statement augment the credo of treating others with respect?
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 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 treasures, the primary and most crucial component of creation, in an unbecoming way, a person shows that he is lacking in his 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 a person truly believes that Hashem created man, how can he fail to treat others with the respect and honor befitting such prized creatures!
As we approach the festive day of Lag Ba'omer (celebrated this coming Thursday) on which the death of Rabbi Akiva's students came to a halt, we should take this message to heart. It is impossible to develop a meaningful relationship with the Creator if we do not regard His creations with respect. Both the seemingly additional phrase in the Torah of "I am Hashem" appended to the mitzvah and the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva's students should serve as a warning and demonstration of the importance of treating others properly. Only after learning this fundamental lesson can we celebrate the upcoming holiday of Shavout with true joy and be sufficiently prepared to relive the thrilling experience of the giving of the Torah.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University in New York.
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