This week we read the Torah portions of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Additionally, we find ourselves in the middle of Sefirat HaOmer; the special countdown, or more accurately count-up, to Shavuot. There is a clear connection between a verse in the portions and the Sefirat HaOmer.
Beyond just being the counting between Pesach and Shavuot, Sefirat HaOmer also serves as a mourning period for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that perished during this time. According to the sages, they died because they didn’t properly honor or respect one another. This is rather surprising considering it was their teacher, Rabbi Akiva, who drew inspiration from the verse in our Torah readings when he concluded, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself; this is a great principle of Torah.”
Considering the fact that their Rabbi had so emphasized the Torah commandment of loving one’s neighbor, how could these students err in not showing each other the proper respect? The truth is that there is a vast difference between love and respect. Love revolves around shared similarities and that which draws us to one another out of mutual agreement. Respect on the other hand revolves around that which differentiates us. It comes from honoring our own unique journeys and experiences.
Rabbi Akiva’s students surely loved each other. They were drawn together out of a mutual love of their teacher and the occupation in Torah. What they couldn’t do was make peace with each other’s differences of perspective. Two students would look at the same lesson and reach different conclusions. They couldn’t accept the viewpoint of the other. This ultimately brought their destruction.
The exact verse from the Torah states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” Why does G-d remind us that He is the Lord after the command? Perhaps G-d is hinting to us that we ought to love each other out of that which we share; that we both share the same Father and King. However, beyond that, G-d reminds us that just as G-d contains in Himself the multiplicity of perspectives and attitudes, so too should they recognize this aspect in their relationships with their fellow Jews. May we learn to not only love each other, but also to respect each other.
– Rabbi Liad Braude