Lag B’Omer: Better than Love
How do we understand the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students?
Lag B’Omer is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer – the days between Passover and Shavuot. It marks the day which brought to an end a terrible plague responsible for the deaths of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva.
The students of Rabbi Akiva who perished were almost certainly intellectual giants. They surely absorbed the great wisdom of their teacher. But they were guilty of a moral failing which could not be disregarded, especially among those who would be looked up to as role models by the Jewish people. Their transgression, the Talmud tells us, was that “they did not treat each other with mutual respect.”
For many years, I studied this passage with intense interest. I was profoundly moved by its implication: Knowledge alone does not establish our righteousness. Scholarship without character forfeits its claim to piety. The students of Rabbi Akiva failed their earthly mission and were taken before their time to serve as spiritual warning for the ages.
But there was one thing that deeply troubled me. How was it possible that these brilliant disciples of Rabbi Akiva were guilty of violating precisely that one precept which served as the core principle of their teacher’s understanding of Judaism? After all, it was none other than Rabbi Akiva who daringly selected from amongst all 613 mitzvot the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) as the underlying concept of the entire Torah. How could his student body be the ones to ignore the core idea of their master’s spiritual teachings?
Rabbi Akiva must have made love of fellow man the very essence of his curriculum. Yet it was his disciples who failed to treat each other with mutual respect.
I didn’t understand – until the day I made the great discovery about the difference between the two ideals of love and respect, and how emphasis on the first does not ensure compliance with the second.
It was a woman in my community who came to me to discuss her deep-rooted desire for a divorce from her husband. “But I know,” I tried to dissuade her, “he loves you very much.”
“I know that,” she told me. “He too tells me that – and I believe him. The problem is that he loves me but he doesn’t respect me. And that is something I cannot and will not live with for the rest of my life.”
Love and respect, much as we often connect them, aren’t really the same thing at all.
Secret of marriage: Protect her like a daughter, love her like a wife and respect her like your mother.
One of the most profound pieces of advice for newlywed couples is that given by a prominent expert in the field who says, “It is not a lack of love but a lack of respect that makes unhappy marriages”. A lovely sign for purchase by honeymooners I spotted in a little shop in Niagara Falls years ago expressed the same idea in these words: “Secret of marriage: Protect her like a daughter, love her like a wife and respect her like your mother.”
Love and respect are the two most important aspects not only of marriage but of parenting and of all significant relationships as well. Peter Gray, who has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education, put it this way: “Love without respect is dangerous; it can crush the other person, sometimes literally. To respect is to understand that the other person is not you, not an extension of you, not a reflection of you, not your toy, not your pet, not your product. In a relationship of respect, your task is to understand the other person as a unique individual and learn how to mesh your needs with his or hers and help that person achieve what he or she wants to achieve. Your task is not to control the other person or try to change him or her in a direction that you desire but he or she does not. I think this applies as much to parent-child relationships as to husband-wife relationships.”
Perhaps the area in which the difference between love and respect becomes most clear is with regard to one’s self. The biblical commandment reads “love your neighbor as yourself” because self-love is assumed – who doesn’t love and want to do everything possible for their own selves? Yet self-respect is an ideal so often found wanting, especially among those who will tell you that they love to pursue anything which will make them happy.
So the Beatles were wrong after all. Love is not all you need. You fall in love but you gain respect. Love is an emotion but respect is an attitude. Love is about attraction; respect is about connection.
It is fascinating that the Torah did not command us to love our parents. It told us to honor and respect them. Love can worship without reason. Respect adds worth and esteem to the equation. It clothes love in garments of admiration, approval and appreciation.
The students of Rabbi Akiva must’ve acknowledged the religious requirement stressed by their teacher to love their fellow man. Perhaps they even verbalized affection and willingness to help their colleagues when necessary. The one thing however they failed to do was to live their lives with mutual respect for each other, because they didn’t understand that that was the next step their Rabbi intended for them to master as necessary part of their spiritual growth.
For 32 days students died. The number 32 as a Hebrew word has special significance. It spells the word lev – heart. The heart is the source of love. But love alone, without respect, will perish. And so the students died until they went beyond that number. The plague ended on the 33rd day, observed as Lag B’Omer. Hopefully we learn from the holiday’s profound message that respect is needed to complete love.