Counting of the Omer
The Omer – Mourning the Loss of Torah
During the Omer, we are not mourning the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students, rather the devastating loss of Torah that came about as a result of their deaths
The Omer is characterized by a period of mourning over the tragic deaths of Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 students. The gemara explains that they were punished because they did not give sufficient honor to each other. However, the Medrash offers a different explanation. It states that they died because they were unwilling to share their Torah with others. How can these two seemingly contradictory maamarei Chazal (saying of the Rabbis) be resolved?
In truth it is possible that both failings emanate from the same source: They both came about as a result of a slight lack of appreciation for the importance of Torah. The root of their failure to attribute sufficient honor to their fellow talmidei chachamim was a lacking in some small way in appreciation of the importance of Torah and the accompanying honor one must give those who learn it.
It would seem that the Medrash’s criticism that they did not that they did not share their Torah could also emanate from a lack of respect for the importance of Torah. This is borne out from the following gemara, as explained by the Maharal. In Parshas Shelach, the Torah, in describing one who worships idols, says that "he disgraced the word of Hashem." The gemara in Sanhedin ascribes this degrading description to a number of other negative forms of behavior such as denying that the Torah is from HaShem. The gemara adds; "Rebbe Meir says; one who learns Torah and does not teach it is included in the category of, 'for he disgraced the word of HaShem'." It is very difficult to understand why learning and not teaching can be placed in the same category as truly terrible sins such as denying that the Torah is from HaShem! The Maharal explains that Kavod HaTorah is greatly enhanced when one spreads the word of Hashem to others. One who does not do so prevents Torah from being learnt by others. Therefore, he disgraces the word of Hashem because through his inaction he hinders the enhancement of Kavod HaShem. We see from the Maharal that a failure to teach others is indicative of a lack of true concern of the honor of the Torah.
With this understanding, it seems that the gemara and Medrash are not arguing – both agree that Rebbe Akiva’s students were lacking in a slight degree in the appropriate appreciation for Torah. The consequences of these sins were so significant that all of these great men died, and as a result the gemara tells us that the world was desolate of Torah. This would seem to be a measure for measure punishment of their inability to spread Torah to others – since they did not teach Torah, they were punished that with their deaths, the continuation of the Torah would be under severe threat.
This is not the only example where we see that a lack of teaching Torah was the cause of great desolation. The gemara in Avoda Zara describes the first two thousands of existence as being years of desolation (tohu). This period ended when Avraham Avinu began to teach Torah to the world. At that time, the ‘period of Torah began’. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l notes that there were individuals who learnt Torah before Avraham Avinu, accordingly he asks how this period can be described as being one of spiritual desolation? He explains that since these men were not going out to teach others, it was impossible for Torah to spread throughout the world. Thus, even though there were individuals learning Torah, it was a time of great desolation. The desolation only ended when Avraham began teaching the world.
We have seen how the failure to honor and spread Torah led to the devastating tragedy of the death of 24,000 talmidei chachamim. It is little surprise that the tikun (rectification) of the sin was that the new students should spread Torah. Accordingly, the Medrash informs us of Rebbe Akiva’s exhortation to his new students. He told them, “do not be like the first students.” The Medrash continues that that when they heard this, “they immediately got up and filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.”
Based on all the above, we have a new perspective about the reasons for the practice of mourning the deaths of the 24,000 students before Lag B’Omer. Some commentaries have pointed out that we do not mourn the deaths of people for longer than twelve months, no matter how great they are. In the Omer we are not mourning the deaths of the students, rather the devastating loss of Torah that came about as a result of their deaths. By mourning this loss of Torah, we can hopefully increase our appreciation for the Torah and the need to spread it to all Jews.
From the book "A Light in Time"