The Delicate Balance| May 9, 2023
Defending one’s stance in Torah while retaining respect for the other who disagrees
ishpacha readers are probably familiar with the Gemara (Yevamos 62b) that serves as the source for the restrictive customs we observe during the Sefirah period. The Gemara tells us that Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim (or, more precisely, as the Gemara terms it, 12,000 pairs of talmidim) all perished sometime between Pesach and Shavuos due to their shortcoming of “lo nahagu kavod zeh b’zeh — not giving each other proper respect.” On some level, these outstanding individuals, who were destined to carry out their rebbi’s legacy, were guilty of not according each other proper honor.
While the story may be familiar, it raises many baffling questions. Firstly, we’re discussing the disciples of the one person singled out by Moshe Rabbeinu himself as more worthy than he to receive the Torah. Surely they were talmidei chachamim of tremendous stature.
What’s even more puzzling is that their teacher, Rabi Akiva, taught the entire world that “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha” is the klal gadol baTorah — the most inclusive and basic tenet we need to follow as Torah Jews. Did his own talmidim not receive the memo?
Equally baffling is how over the course of seven weeks of the plague (or perhaps even only 33 days according to some interpretations of the Gemara) did they not catch on that something was amiss in their bein adam l’chaveiro? For that matter, didn’t Rabi Akiva realize something was terribly wrong?
And finally, the Gemara says the talmidim died from the most painful death, known as askarah. Did they commit a transgression even remotely deserving of a death sentence? Even v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha is no more than a mitzvas aseh, a positive command that does not carry any physical punishment at all! All this begs for an explanation, any number of which have been offered in numerous seforim and speeches.
Perhaps we can suggest a novel approach that may be extremely relevant for our contemporary society.
The sefer Shaarei Teshuvah, printed in all editions of Shulchan Aruch (not to be confused with Rabbeinu Yonah’s classic ethical work) poses the following question: Two men are incarcerated in prison and there is only one k’zayis of matzah available. Do they cordially divide it in half, leaving neither of them with a proper shiur? Or do they fight it out until the victor emerges with the prize, a concept known in Shas as “kol d’alim gevar — whoever is stronger wins,” which is applied in various instances when the rightful owner in a dispute cannot be identified.
Shaarei Teshuvah opines that the latter solution is correct by way of a fortiori reasoning (kal v’chomer in yeshivish vernacular). Rabi Akiva famously taught that if two people are walking in the desert dying of thirst, and only one has a jug of water, which doesn’t contain enough water to satiate both, he should drink it himself because of the principle of “chayecha kodmin — your life comes first.” As harsh as it seems for a person to watch his friend die, it is a better option than both of them dying.
Shaarei Teshuvah draws a parallel from Rabi Akiva’s ruling and concludes that if the pasuk teaches us that a person is meant to prioritize himself when it comes to physical matters, then this must be true all the more so for spiritual matters, like matzah on Pesach. Therefore, he concludes, we leave it up to the two prisoners to duke it out, with one ultimately taking the entire k’zayis, while the second will be left with nothing at all.
Let us now return to the tragic deaths of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim. While, chalilah, we cannot delude ourselves that we’re in a position to judge and understand these lofty individuals, we can attempt to learn practical lessons for ourselves.
Have you ever seen the inside of a beis medrash during a first or second seder? An uninitiated observer could easily think there were genuine fights about to break out between any given pair of chavrusas. In fact, after a new maintenance employee was hired in Lakewood Yeshivah, he was warned by a seasoned veteran that “the place sounds like a bar on Friday night where they are ready to kill each other, and it happens every day. And then you see them walk together to lunch like nothing ever happened!”
Bnei Torah are very spirited in proving their positions. They’re defending the essence of their very lives, and the most important thing in the world to them. If it means yelling and screaming to make the point, so be it.
The Rishonim were never shy about expressing their feelings when they felt their sparring partners were incorrect. One merely needs to study the Raavad’s comments when disputing a Rambam to understand what we mean. The Vilna Gaon disputed the Rambam’s interpretation of a particular halachah and accused him of being influenced by Greek philosophers. Even the Gemara is chock-full of colorful expressions such as “Rav (must have) said that in his sleep!”
The Chofetz Chaim dedicates space in his sefer Shemiras Halashon to explain how Chazal could speak in such a seemingly coarse, disparaging manner. But one thing is for sure — when it comes to the truth in Torah, there can be no room for ambiguity. Period.
But even these intense debates have boundaries. We know how easy it can be to get carried away. If a great talmid chacham knows he is right, he won’t cede an inch. But that won’t stop him from showing the love and respect due to his adversary after the dust settles.
I recall the very first shiur I merited hearing from Rav Leizer Shach ztz”l shortly after arriving in Ponevezh Yeshivah. He had quoted a novel idea from Rav Chaim Volozhiner but didn’t agree with it at all. His confidence came through as he spoke into the microphone, “Un ess iz nisht azoi — and it is [simply] not so!”
In shock, I turned to the veteran talmid at my side and asked if I had heard right. My new friend responded emphatically, “You must be new here. If Rav Shach says it is nisht azoi, then it is nisht azoi!”
Obviously, little people like myself would have no business ever talking or even feeling that way. But gedolei Yisrael know they are right. And even when other gedolim oppose them, knowing they are right, too, we believe that the Torah allows for more than one way to see and understand things, as evidenced since the codification of the Mishnayos and all the arguments quoted there and in subsequent Gemaras and Rishonim.
A talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler in Lakewood shared something that illustrates this point as well. It was well known that Rav Aharon had his share of disagreements with the holy Satmar Rav ztz”l. After one particular episode, this talmid, seeking to learn from his rebbi, asked Rav Aharon why he saw fit to speak as he did — after all, the talmid said, he is the Satmar Rav!
Rav Aharon responded, “Avada Satmar Rav, uber mir zeinen gerecht — of course he is the great Satmar Rav, but I am right!”
And the feelings of respect despite their disagreements were mutual. The Satmar Rav famously eulogized Rav Aharon quoting Rashi’s words on Aharon HaKohein, “To teach us the greatness of Aharon, that he didn’t waver.” The disagreements between these two gedolim serve as a model of how to vehemently disagree with another’s views without losing an iota of love and respect.
Dare we suggest, then, that perhaps the saga of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim be viewed in the same light? As his disciples, they had imbibed his teaching, that chayecha kodmin dictates our approach to ruchniyus and our perception of the truth. Their beis medrash probably looked like the Mir, Ponevezh, or BMG on steroids. After all, these were the transmitters of Torah for the next generation and for all time. There was no room for anything but emes, the absolute truth in interpreting the Torah.
However, perhaps Chazal were indicting them for having gone slightly too far, for not according each other the proper respect they deserved. The Talmud Yerushalmi, in fact, specifically says they were tzari ayin — selfish, for lack of a better word, in their learning with each other.
Hearing a chavrusa out and giving his logic proper consideration is an outgrowth of being a tov ayin. In their quest for emes, and their certainty that they held the correct position, perhaps they were found wanting in according respect to their chavrusas’ positions.
This would also explain why the fatal plague didn’t stop them. Perhaps they were convinced that specifically the pursuit of Toras Emes was what would protect them, while not realizing that the delicate balance of defending one’s stance in Torah while retaining respect for the other who disagrees had tilted.
For little people like us, it’s certainly way too easy to stumble in that nisayon. Greater people are held to higher standards, and perhaps this is where the talmidim of Rabi Akiva were held accountable.
To be sure, this is merely conjecture, as we grapple with this most difficult Gemara. But as I have heard and seen in print from Rav Shach, the Torah does not tell us stories that are impossible for us to understand properly. We need to take to heart the inherent lessons for ourselves, while bearing in mind that we are hardly in a position to evaluate those who are referred to as “rishonim k’malachim — angelic beings.”
Both Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov zt”l in his sefer Agra D’pirka, as well as Rav Elya Baruch Finkel ztz”l of the Mir some 200 years later, point out yet another Gemara in Maseches Menachos (68b) that would seem to demonstrate the same concept at play.
The Gemara relates the following anecdote regarding a talmid of Rabi Akiva, Rabi Yehuda bar Nechemiah: Rabi Tarfon was struggling to understand a certain halachah concerning the validity of bringing a Korban Minchah or Bikkurim before the Korban Omer. Rabi Yehuda bar Nechemiah offered a valid explanation and he glowed from joy as a result — “tzahavu panav.”
Rabi Akiva immediately admonished him and said, “I wonder if you will live long!”
Rabi Yehuda bar Ilai adds that this incident took place two weeks before Pesach. When Rabi Yehuda bar Ilai returned to visit his colleagues for Shavuos, he inquired about Rabi Yehuda bar Nechemiah, and was informed he had passed away.
It’s probably not coincidental that this anecdote happened with a talmid of Rabi Akiva, and at this time of year. This subtle gesture of perceived gloating at having bested a friend and colleague in learning is perhaps an example of the lack of derech eretz (again, for Chazal to decide, not for us to judge) for which the talmidim of Rabi Akiva were taken to task.
This understanding also may shed some light on why the talmidim were punished with the dreaded askarah. The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos teaches us that one of the causes of that horrific death is bittul Torah.
And there is no greater bittul Torah than not granting credibility to someone else’s opinion and thereby erring or not properly understanding the depth of a topic to its fullest. It’s important to take the time to understand why your friend didn’t reach the same conclusion; maybe he knows something you don’t?
For the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, the conduits through whom Torah was to be passed on for eternity, nothing other than perfection would suffice.
Rav Elya Baruch shared a story he had personally witnessed. He was present in the home of his illustrious grandfather, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel ztz”l, when Rav Aharon Kotler came to pay a visit. As the two gedolim were talking, an employee of the Mirrer Yeshiva (not a hanhalah member), entered the room, and Rav Aharon jumped to his feet and stood fully erect in his honor.
When asked later why he saw it fitting to be mechabed this man as he did, Rav Aharon simply responded that this individual was his chavrusa when he was a young bochur in Slabodka, and a chavrusa should stand for his learning partner as he does for his rebbi!
Now in the Yemei HaSefirah, we owe it to ourselves to see if we can learn anything from what we were mandated to do during this time, and not merely count the days until Sheloshes Yemei Hagbalah and our next haircut or wedding.
We may not be in the same stratosphere as the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, nor do we expect to be judged with the same exacting standards. Nevertheless, we need to give some serious thought to two lessons from the tragedy. After all, if the halachah requires our adherence to these practices for thousands of years after the event, we are apparently intended to engage in some true introspection.
First, although our immediate reaction should be to rectify the shortcomings of those holy talmidim and give more honor and credibility to those on the other side of a debate, it’s also worth examining our own commitment to our convictions and not allowing the zeitgeist of the world to penetrate.
We are living in what can only be described as the rebirth of a Sodomian era, Roman decadence, Dor Hamabul, and Dor Haflagah all wrapped up into one. And then some. We’re constantly bombarded by threats to everything we hold dear, from tzniyus to emunah to chemdah to the chinuch of our children.
While it’s way too easy to give in and compromise when we shouldn’t, we need to fight for what is emes, not only against the world but against our own yitzrei hara. We cannot cower to threats to our ruchniyus just to avoid confrontation. The talmidim of Rabi Akiva fought tooth and nail for every nuance in learning, and we are expected to do the same for all that is precious and non-negotiable in our world.
Knowing which issues are ones for which we need to dig in and which issues have room for compromise is challenging. Fortunately, the average hamon am doesn’t need to make these policy decisions about societal issues — we have our gedolim to guide us on those. For more personal matters, having an objective rav or mentor can be crucial to help us determine how and when we pick our battles.
Then there is the second part: maintaining the kavod and dignity of others while upholding our beliefs.
We often find ourselves in heated debates. Whether they are school or shul board meetings, or perhaps halachic debates when both sides are learned enough for their opinion to count, we constantly challenge and disagree with others. Challenge is good and disagreement is healthy, but machlokes, name-calling, and derision are off the table.
My father-in-law, Rav Yoel Sperka (formerly of Detroit and currently living in Lakewood), shared an experience he had as a bochur in Beis Medrash Govoha, as he was sitting in the office of Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l. Barton’s Candy was considering changing a certain ingredient in their product, and a pertinent sh’eilah was brought to Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ztz”l, the senior posek in America at that time.
The Rav called Rav Aharon to discuss the issue, and a heated disagreement in learning ensued. After hearing Rav Henkin’s view, Rav Aharon covered the speaker portion of the phone and very animatedly shared his displeasure of the Rav’s approach with the young bochur sitting in his office, explaining quite forcefully and convincingly why he felt otherwise.
After that, though, Rav Aharon spoke into the phone and reverently asked, “Vos zogt ir, Rav Henkin — What do you say, Rav Henkin?” in a clear show of his readiness to hear Rav Henkin’s argument again and consider his points anew.
The sefer Toras Chaim on Pirkei Avos (a collection of authentic Torah and stories from the Brisker dynasty) quotes the following in the name of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik, current Rosh Yeshivas Brisk, illustrating this point.
One of the Torah giants of the early 1900s was Rav Shmuel Mohliver ztz”l, who was active in promoting our return to Eretz Yisrael, and very involved in the Chovevei Tzion movement, which eventually led to the establishment of Mizrachi.
Rav Shmuel once visited Brisk, and Rav Chaim went out to greet him, much to the consternation of the city’s anti-Zionists. Rav Chaim dismissed them, stating that Rav Shmuel was a gaon in learning and a very prominent talmid chacham, worthy of a kabbalas panim from the Rav.
When Rav Shmuel was niftar, Rav Chaim made plans to attend the funeral, despite the protests of his bnei bayis that Rav Shmuel was a Tzioni. One of the local Brisker residents pleaded with Rav Chaim not to attend. He claimed that the general populace would not understand the difference between the man and his shitos, and that it would lead to a chillul Hashem as people would assume that Rav Chaim supported Zionism.
Rav Chaim retorted, “What am I supposed to do if the olam is tipshim (fools)?”
In that same sefer, a resident of Bialystok named Rav Dovid Frankel ztz”l is quoted as sharing that he attended that levayah as well, and not only was Rav Chaim present, but Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d was as well.
When the author of the sefer that publicized this story told it to the Chazon Ish, he simply commented, “They wanted to demonstrate to everyone that their differences were limited to the shitah and not the man.”
And Rav Refoel Shapiro ztz”l, the rav of Babruysk and one of the gedolei hador, held a public eulogy for Rav Shmuel and bemoaned the fact that the niftar was not recognized for the illui that he was. This entire episode speaks for itself.
Now that we have identified the two-pronged lesson to learn from the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, we can apply it practically in our daily lives. In our zeal to stand up for our ideals, do we remember to appreciate every other person — even an opponent — as a tzelem Elokim with inherent value? Does the throw-away culture of the secular world, which measures the value of others by what they contribute to us, seep into our worldview?
If we can train ourselves to always hold our fellow Yid — whether chavrusa, neighbor, spouse, or even child — in the highest esteem, even while disagreeing with them, just think how much that would improve our interpersonal relationships, shalom bayis, and the very fabric of frum society.
What about demographics who are beholden to hashkafos that we feel are abjectly misguided? If, chas v’shalom, a tragedy were to occur within their community, are we that much less concerned? Do we shrug inwardly and say, “well, it didn’t affect us”? If we adopt this attitude, we are guilty of what may have been the fault for which the talmidim of Rabi Akiva were held liable.
We need to do our best and hold the talmidim of Rabi Akiva up as our example for both commitment to the truth, and to learn from what happened to be truly committed to each other in the process. If we succeed, we will have done our part in passing on Toras Emes to the next generation.
Kabbalas HaTorah is right around the corner. We all have work to do.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 960)
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