This is Twelve – Bechukotai


וְהֵבֵאתִי עֲלֵיכֶם חֶרֶב נֹקֶמֶת נְקַם בְּרִית וְנֶאֱסַפְתֶּם אֶל עָרֵיכֶם וְשִׁלַּחְתִּי דֶבֶר בְּתוֹכְכֶם וְנִתַּתֶּם בְּיַד אוֹיֵב (ויקרא כו, כה)

The first half of this week’s parsha deals with the brachot and the klalot, which are seemingly asymmetrical (11 psukkim for the brachot and 28 for the klalot), but are in fact an optical illusion, as brought in Midrash Tanchuma (Re’ei, 4), that in the big picture, the brachot actually outnumber the klalot. 

In this week’s shiur I would like to talk about Lag Ba’Omer, Rebi Akiva and his talmidim, but before we get to that, a short introduction is required.

See if you can find the common denominator in the following psukkim -

זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם בְּיוֹם בְּרֹא אֱ-לֹקִים אָדָם בִּדְמוּת אֱ-לֹקִים עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ (בראשית ה, א).

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ לֵאמֹר זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ ה' (בראשית ה, כט).

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל אַבְרָהָם לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי (בראשית יח, יג).

וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת ה' (בראשית כה, כב).

וַיֹּאמֶר מִי לְךָ כָּל הַמַּחֲנֶה הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר פָּגָשְׁתִּי וַיֹּאמֶר לִמְצֹא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי (בראשית לג, ח).

וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ נָסְעוּ מִזֶּה כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֹמְרִים נֵלְכָה דֹּתָיְנָה וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן (בראשית לז, יז).

וַיֹּאמְרוּ לִי עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ (שמות לב, כג).

Chazal tell us that the use of the word זֶה in these psukkim is a reference to the Twelve Tribes. The gematria of the word זֶה is 12.

The original plan was that Adam and Chava would give birth to the שנים עשר שבטים, however they sinned. There were hopes that Noach would fulfill this role, but he too sinned, so the task was passed down to Avraham and Sarah. When Sarah laughed, she forfeited the זכות to bear the שנים עשר שבטים and it was transferred to Yitzchak and Rivka. During the pregnancy Rivka complained of the children fighting in her womb and she too forfeited the right, which was passed on to Yaakov and his wives. Yaakov finally accomplished the task, but not without hiccups along the way - the brothers selling Yosef to Egypt and temporarily losing sight of the vision of זֶה. When Am Yisrael left Egypt and received the Torah they too realized this vision, but again, after certain hiccups, like the עגל הזהב.

The construct of the Twelve Tribes, preordained in the בריאה, has deep symbolic meaning and is connected to other “12-constructs” - months in the year, hours in a day, מזלות, etc. 

Now that we understand this fundamental principle we can begin talking about the talmidim of Rebi Akiva.

שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה (יבמות סב, ע"ב)

There are many shiurim on the subject of how and why the 24,000 talmidim of Rebi Akiva perished, and they all have one drawback – they are influenced by “personal agendas”. As we will soon see, this subject is highly topical and relevant to current events today and subsequently the relating of this episode cannot help but be affected by the personal agendas of the parties involved. It is practically impossible to analyze this subject absolutely objectively and I will admit that my own interpretation of it is similarly “tainted”. I too have a personal agenda regarding this, but it is “anti-sectorial”, not “sectorial” as most other interpretations are.

To better understand the story of Rebi Akiva and his talmidim, some historical context is necessary.

When I was in the 6th grade we had a test in history, for which I did not study at all. We were required to write an essay on the subject in question and I wrote four long pages, conjured up from my own imagination, with no basis in fact. After being checked by the teacher I receive my test paper back with a score of ZERO and a comment – “This is ‘his’tory not ‘your’story!”

I have never forgotten that comment, but over the years have reflected on it and wondered if the teacher’s paradigm was entirely accurate. History is mostly based on recordings of individuals (usually the victors), but limited by their personal bias and perspective. Occasionally we have scientific, archeological evidence that either ratifies or challenges written texts, but even archeology is not an absolute science and prone to interpretation motivated by bias and personal agendas.  The “historical” account that I bring here is a conglomeration of our sources from Chazal, the Rambam, etc. but also external sources (Roman historians such as Cassius Dio and Josephus) as a foil to counterbalance and fill in some blanks. Did it happen exactly like that? We will never know!

Let’s begin with the facts. The Tanna Rebi Akiva, the son of Yosef, a גר אדומי, was born in a generation of transition. During his lifetime he experienced the reality of the existence of the Beit Hamikdash (although Bayit Sheini was destroyed when he was aged 20, before he began to study Torah, so it is unclear what impression that reality made on him if any, or if he even actually visited the Beit Hamikdash himself), the destruction of Bayit Sheini, the revolt of Bar Kochba, the loss of national independence and the shift to a “Diaspora” form of Judaism.

The Gemara (Ktuvot 62b) relates that he made an agreement with his wife Rachel that he would go study for 12 years. During that time he accumulated 12,000 talmidim. Upon his return home, before entering his house, he overheard Rachel rebuking their neighbors who said that Rebi Akiva was an unfit husband, that he had left her for twelve years to fend for herself. She responded that if it were up to her, he should return to the Yeshiva for another twelve years. Rebi Akiva did a U-turn, he never even entered the door (for fear that this would weaken his resolve) and returned to the Yeshiva for another twelve years, during which he accumulated another 12,000 students, totaling 24,000 in all.

These 24,000 students were all Tannaim like their teacher. To get some concept of their level, the five students who remained after they died included luminaries such as Rebi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rebi Meir Ba’al HaNess, etc. Imagine 24,000 Tannaim of that stature – these were Rebi Akiva’s students!

The Gemara in Yevamot above relates שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. Is it possible to even contemplate that gedolim of the stature of Rashbi, Rebi Yehuda, Rebi Meir, Rebi Yosi and Rebi Elazar “disrespected” each other? as this Gemara is commonly interpreted. That students of Rebi Akiva, whose motto was ואהבת לרעך כמוך failed to have respect for each other?

The Gemara says וכולן מתו בפרק אחד and כולם מתו מיתה רעה. One opinion, of Rav Nachman, is that they died of a plague, אסכרה, dysentery. According to the Gemara they all died between Pesach and Shavuot - 24,000 students in this time means hundreds of funerals every day. When there is chas vechalila a pigua in Israel and three people die, it is headline news. It causes an outcry, sends people to the streets, to the Batei Knesset to say tehilim. Hundreds of funerals every day for over almost two months and there is no outcry? No tefila at the kotel? In the Yeshivas? Perhaps there was, but it is not mentioned in any of the sources. How can such a thing be? And if it was a plague - dysentery is highly contagious, how can it be that only Rebi Akiva’s talmidim died of it and nobody else?

To throw some light on these questions, I will bring the opinion of רב שרירא גאון (רש"ג) (father of רב האי גאון), a generation before Rashi.

During the siege of Yerushalayim, Rebi Yochanan ben Zakai convinced Emperor Hadrian to spare the Chachamim of Yavneh. After the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash the de facto halachic and spiritual center was relocated from Yerushalayim to Yavneh. The Romans did not object initially to autonomous religious administration, but cruelly and decisively quelled any attempts at nationalism.

Parallel to this, a secular, nationalistic movement also sprung up, founded by שמעון בן כוסִבא in an attempt to militarily oppose the Romans and reestablish nationalistic self-rule in Israel. Shimon (Bar Kochba) was a formidable individual with enormous physical strength. From accounts in the Midrash (איכה רבה, ב, ד) he could repel huge boulders hurled by Roman Ballistae with his knees, like soccer balls. He gathered round him a fighting force of 200,000 warriors, to which the entrance requirement was that they sever one of their fingers as a sign of courage (Ta’anit 24a). Bar Kochba and his band of warriors were not religious and were known to say before a battle “Hashem, don’t help us, but also don’t get in our way!”

The reaction of the Chachamim to Bar Kochba was mixed.

You had Chachamim like Rebi Yosi ben Kisma, a “moderate”, who resigned himself to the fact that independence was lost and the best scenario was to continue quietly, secretly studying Torah and not provoke the Romans. When Rebi Chanina ben Tradyon (one of the עשרה הרוגי מלכות) went to visit Rebi Yosi ben Kisma, the latter expressed alarm at Rebi Chanina’s defiance and vocal opposition to the Roman edict against studying Torah and said he would not be surprised if the Romans did not burn Rebi Chanina together with a Sefer Torah (which eventually happened). Rebi Yosi and others who followed his school of thought, were opposed to Bar Kochba’s activities.

You had Chachamim like Rebi Elazar Hamodai (איכה רבה, ב, ד), who did not oppose Bar Kochba, but did not actively participate in his activities. Each time they went into battle he used to fast and daven to Hashem to not sit in Din that day. Bar Kochba and Rebi Elazar Hamodai had a symbiotic relationship, similar to that of Moshe Rabeinu and Yehoshua during the battle with Amalek, that while it persisted, allowed Bar Kochba to defy the might of Rome and be victorious.

And then you had Chachamim like Rebi Akiva who openly and actively supported Bar Kochba, claimed that he was the Mashiach and was even נושא כליו  “carried his  weapons” (רמב"ם הלכות מלכים ומלחמות, יא, ג). Rebi Akiva, unlike Rebi Elazar Hamodai, was not content to only spiritually support Bar Kochba, but he encouraged his students to conscript. He could not however accept the entrance “test” of cutting off one’s finger, so he convinced Bar Kochba to replace this test with another test requiring uprooting a cedar tree. This encouragement from Rebi Akiva doubled Bar Kochba’s fighting force which subsequently also included shomrei Torah and mitzvot. A few decades ago Yigal Yadin uncovered archeological remains of some of Bar Kochba’s letters and in one, Bar Kochba orders one of his logistics officers to make sure there are adequate Arba’at Haminim for the soldiers to use on Sukkot – most likely Rebi Akiva’s talmidim. One of the coins minted by Bar Kochba also has a graphic depiction of the Arba’at Haminim - according to the opinion of Rebi Akiva – with one of each of the minim (one arava, one hadas, not two and three – like the opinion of Rebi Yishmael).

According to the opinon of רב שרירא גאון, the talmidim of Rebi Akiva did not die of a “plague”, but died in battle during Bar Kochba’s revolt. This would explain why there was no outcry when specifically 24,000 of Rebi Akiva’s talmidim died - because they were a small part of the 500,000 (some say one million) who died at that time. There was an outcry but it was larger and more general.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 18b) and the Midrash (איכה רבה, ב, ד), detail the horrific fall of Beitar. The Midrash explains that for three years Bar Kochba held off the might of Rome. Emperor Hadrian, at his wits end how to defeat him, learned of the relationship between Bar Kochba and Rebi Elazar Hamodai and devised a scheme to sow discord between them, which eventually led to Bar Kochba killing Rebi Elazar Hamodai. From then on it was a slippery slope that led to Bar Kochba’s downfall. Had the symbiotic relationship between the two continued, Bar Kochba may well have prevailed and proved to be the Mashiach that Rebi Akiva believed him to be.

The Gemara in Yevamot tells us about the death of Rebi Akiva’s talmidim who perished, most probably in this war. Another Gemara (Gittin 58a) tells us about the multitudes of תינוקות של בית רבן that were slaughtered in Beitar.

The important thing in the Gemara in Yevamot is that it states the reason for their deaths –

שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה (יבמות סב, ע"ב)

They died because שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. Who is זה לזה referring to? Rebi Akiva’s talmidim one to another? I think not. We saw above that Tannaim of their stature and students of a motto of ואהבת לרעך כמוך would not and could not disrespect one another.

The זה לזה is referring to two other parties who disrespected each other. Not only disrespected, but spoke lashon harah about one another (the gematria of מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה is לשון הרע). I am referring to the two factions in Am Yisrael who were diametrically opposed in their approach to dealing with the Roman oppression.

Rebi Yosi ben Kisma’s approach, which must have been upheld by many, was that Bar Kochba was a trouble maker, a secular, non-believer and a danger to Am Yisrael - an approach that was vehemently opposed to conscription and taking up arms. According to this approach, the only defense for Am Yisrael was studying Torah.

The second approach was that of many in Bar Kochba’s army, secular soldiers, who regarded people like Rebi Yosi ben Kisma as spineless “parasites”, who enjoyed the protection and freedoms that Bar Kochba afforded them but seemingly collaborated with Israel’s enemies, the Romans (when Rebi Yosi ben Kisma died, the Romans gave him a ceremonious, state funeral).

It was not simple disrespect, but an insidious hate for one another out of the belief that the other was the root of all evil.

It is important to pay attention to the language of the Gemara, which is worded as it is for a reason. The Gemara does not say שלא נהגו כבוד אחד לשני, it specifically says שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. Why the use of the word זה?

I believe what the Gemara is trying to tell us is what I began the shiur with. There is something special about the number twelve. The number twelve is an especially significant number in Rebi Akiva’s life – twelve years of study, another twelve years. The Gemara, instead of saying 24,000 talmidim, chooses to phrase it in terms of the number twelve שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים.

What does זה, the שנים עשר שבטים epitomize?

As I have mentioned in a previous shiur, we can learn it from the 12 loaves of the Lechem Hapanim, which represent the Twelve Tribes. The loaves are not arranged equally on the Shulchan. Theoretically, if they were equal, the Shulchan should have been large enough to accommodate all twelve sitting adjacent to each other, in one layer, directly on the Shulchan, but that is not how they are. They are arranged in two stacks of six. There are loaves on top of the stacks, loaves at the bottom, loaves in the middle.

This is the Twelve Tribes. They are not equivalent, each has a different role to play and a position to occupy in Klal Yisrael, But they are all necessary and if one “loaf” is passul, all the others automatically become passul as well.

It is one tribe’s role to sit and study Torah (Yissachar). It is another tribe’s role to be soldiers (Gad). The two do not conflict!

It was the role of Rebi Elazar Hamodai to sit and study Torah and it was the role of Bar Kochba’s warriors to fight! As long as there was symbiosis between the two – Rebi Elazar’s deep concern for the welfare of Bar Kochba’s troops and Bar Kochba’s deep concern for the spiritual needs of his soldiers … Rebi Akiva’s students, they could not be beaten. This is the Twelve Tribes.

Only when there is discord in this symbiotic relationship - does disaster loom. שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה - when one part of the זה disrespects the role of another part of the זהthat is when נסעו מזה, the “brothers have departed from the vision of the Twelve Tribes”, like Yosef’s brothers who sold him to slavery in Egypt, an episode that involved lashon harah (Yosef against his brothers) and hate (of the brothers against Yosef). This is what it means שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה and that is when tragedy strikes.

It is for this reason we have minhagei aveilut during this period and why, contrary to many contemporary opinions, these minhagei aveilut are still relevant today!

They are relevant because we still have not learned the lesson of the Twelve.

When you have a political leader in the Israeli government who gets up and calls those who study Torah “parasites” and “deluded Messianics”; When you have so called “talmidei chachamim” studying Torah in Meah Shearim who attack an Israeli soldier in the streets, or don’t stand for the siren in respect for the memory of all the soldiers who have died defending their right to study Torah in Meah Shearim……. It means we have not yet learned the lesson.

If a chiloni Jew can respect that it is by virtue of those studying Torah and being shomrei mitzvoth that we continue to exist here in Israel; If a charedi Jew can respect that Mashiach is not necessarily a Yeshiva bochur (the Rambam comes right out and says it רמב"ם הלכות מלכים ומלחמות, יא, ג where he is posek lehalacha like Rebi Akiva and NOT like Rebi Yochanan ben Torta, that a secular Jew can very likely be the Mashiach! It is  possible that the Geulah can be brought about by a non-religious, secular Zionist movement!

Bar Kochba could have been the Mashiach, except for one thing – one leg of the Twelve disrespected another leg of the Twelve. It is a terrifying thought, that each generation has the possibility for the Mashiach, but by virtue of our failure to grasp the moment and transcend our misguided, narrow-minded, egotistical, sectorial sense of self-importance, the opportunity is lost.

That is why Bar Kochba and his soldiers all died, 24,000 students of Rebi Akiva died, along with hundreds of thousands of others, including tinnokot shel beit rabban – who were sitting and studying Torah! They were divided in life, but united in death!

The only obstacle to Am Yisrael and the current State of Israel meriting Mashiach and rebuilding the Bayit Shlishi tomorrow is not the UN, Biden, Putin, Nasrallah or the Iranians. It is the lack of respect of one leg of the Twelve for the other. In death we are united – the terrorists do not distinguish between Bnei Brak, Elad and Tel Aviv. This is the lesson that Hashem is teaching us now.

When we learn the lesson, once and for all, the Geulah will come.

There is a wind of change blowing in Eretz Yisrael and more and more people are coming to understand that when we stop being our own worst enemy, no outside enemy can harm us.

This Lag Ba’Omer should be a siman of the change that is sweeping over our nation and it should be a siman bracha that signals the end of the klalot that afflict us and the coming of Mashiach בבי"א.

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