Lag B'Omer: Community or Individual?
Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students, and all of them died at the same time of the year [during the omer], because they failed to give honor to each other. (Yevamos 62b)
Although this Chazal does not tell us exactly when these students stopped dying, the later commentators fill in the details:
There are those who have their hair cut from Lag BaOmer onwards, since at this time they [the students of Rabbi Akiva] stopped dying. (Tur, Orach Chaim 493; see also Beis Yosef loc. cit.)
The difficulty with this is obvious. How could the greatest Torah scholars of the age fail in such a simple matter? What went wrong, bringing upon them such a terrible punishment? It is surely also significant that they died particularly at this time of year, rather than at any other. The nature of the omer period must in some way lend itself to their error and its punishment.
When a person shows respect and honor to another, this feeling springs from a recognition that his friend is superior to him in one way or another. There are so many facets to human nature that any individual will excel in at least one detail. This feeling will be reciprocated, so that in any society, such as that of Rabbi Akiva's disciples, each member will honor every other.
But this works only within certain constraints. Provided that the constituents of the group continue to view each other as distinct people, this mutual admiration functions correctly. But let us imagine that the members of this society become too close to each other, regarding themselves as mere parts of a whole, rather than as discrete entities, perhaps even as limbs of the same body. And just as in a body the left arm doesn't praise the right arm for being stronger, so too, the members of this fraternity cease to honor each other, taking each constituent's special attributes for granted. We may suggest that this is the reason why the disciples of Rabbi Akiva failed to give honor to each other.
But surely unity is one of the great aims of Jewish life! What was wrong with achieving such a tremendous rapport with others? The answer is that by focusing so entirely on the community one loses sight of the fact that it is composed of individuals. Every tzaddik has his own role to play in the spiritual development of the world, one which is very precious and not attainable by anyone else. Failing to include this in one's view of life has disastrous consequences for Jewish survival. While we must concentrate on the development of communal unity, it must never be at the expense of the individual's worth. For people on the tremendous spiritual level of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, this was a grievous error, so much so that they were smitten as a result.
My holy father added the following insight to our understanding of this matter: The period of the omer is during the months of Nissan, Iyar, and Sivan. The zodiac sign of Nissan is the lamb. Sheep bleat as one and stick together. This indicates that Nissan is a month of focusing on the klal, the community as a whole. In this month, the whole community was redeemed from Egypt, regardless of individual worth. Iyar has the sign of the bull, a more solitary animal, representing a complete change of focus to the worth of the individual. Sivan, however, is represented by the twins. This indicates the most ideal form of Divine service, blending the two opposite foci of the previous months.
It is crucial to note that the Torah was given in Sivan. Chazal tell us that when Yisrael reached Mount Sinai:
Yisrael camped there (Shemos 19:2) - when they came to Mount Sinai they formed a homogeneous group. At that moment, God said that "the time has arrived to give My children the Torah." (Eichah Rabbah, Pesichah 20)
This leads us to the view that unity is the only prerequisite for receiving the Torah. But the above excerpt is complemented by the following:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, "If Yisrael had been lacking even one person, the Divine Presence would not have been revealed to them." (Devarim Rabbah 7:8)
While God required unity for the most monumental revelation in the history of the world, this was never at the sacrifice of the need for individual existence and expression.
It is clear why misfortune befell Rabbi Akiva's students during the period of the omer. They had lost sight of the aim of Jewish life - to focus on both the community and the individual. It was during the omer, when this ideal is most potently felt, that their deficiencies were most strongly highlighted. They completely failed to learn from the nature of the Divine service expected of them during this period; hence their punishment was exacted at that time. God deals particularly stringently with His dear ones.
It is not insignificant that the plague terminated on Lag BaOmer. Just as the night is divided into three sections, the last of which is associated with the coming dawn, so too, the last third of the omer period, from after Lag BaOmer onwards, is associated with Shavuos. It is as if the proper appreciation of community and individual radiates from Sivan into the last part of the omer. Let us hope that we understand the importance of the error of Rabbi Akiva's students and make our sefiras ha'omer a happy synthesis of communal unity and personal growth.