Between the first day of Pesach, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and the following holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the Israelites’ receiving G-d’s Torah, is an interval of fifty days. In the Torah received from G-d, the nation of Israel is commanded (Vayikra 23:15 -16), “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the rest day, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count fifty days.”
In eager anticipation of the anniversary of receiving G-d’s precious gift of the Torah – His blueprint for life – we count the weeks and days leading to Shavuot. Each day during this interval, called sefirah (Hebrew for “counting”), Jews all over the world recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the omer,” and then proceed to state the number of weeks and days that have passed on the way to the joyous holiday of Shavuot.
In contrast to the aforementioned countdown to the joyous commemoration of receiving G-d’s gift of the Torah, it is customary during this period of time to practice partial mourning in solemn memory of the tragic occurrence in which 24,000 students of the great Tanna R. Akiva died during this interval, as reported by our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b), “because they did not treat each other respectfully.” During this period, we refrain from performing weddings, haircuts and parties (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 493; Mishna Brura ad locum).
How ironic! We are to temper our joy during a period marked by a Biblical commandment whereby we express our eager anticipation of commemorating the highlight of our bond with the Al-Mighty G-d in order to memorialize an admittedly tragic event but one that happened myriads of years afterwards. Why should a subsequent tragedy nullify, as it were, a joyous period of Biblical proportions? There were numerous tragic incidents that occurred over the long period of Jewish history that have not led to similar results. What is the special significance here?
The key lies in the Sages’ description of the cause for R. Akiva’s students’ demise: “they did not treat each other respectfully.” Whatever they actually did, whether this served as a direct or indirect cause, it is seen by our Sages as responsible for their deaths. These were students of the greatest of our Sages! Their achievements in Torah study, as a result, are practically unfathomable! Yet, G-d saw it as acceptable to let all these students die “because they did not treat each other respectfully,” and, because of this, Jewish law has sanctioned a period of mourning during what should have been a tremendously happy interval. A clear message arises. We cannot and dare not revel in the Torah if we are insensitive to each other.
What counts is study of the Torah and practicing its precepts, and we should do so joyfully and with anticipation, to the point of eagerly counting down to the day that we commemorate receiving the Torah, but it must go hand in hand with sensitivity and caring for each other’s needs and feelings. We cannot be true scholars or upholders of the Torah and at the same time denigrate, malign or offend others. We cannot be true scholars or upholders of the Torah and at the same time ignore the feelings and needs of the needy, the downtrodden or those less fortunate than us. Our Sages tell us (Mishna Avot 3:17 ), “Without Torah, there is no derekh eretz [proper interpersonal relationships]; without derekh eretz, there is no Torah.” Belief in the Torah and its study and practice must go hand in hand with caring for others. The two must go together. That is what counts.