Why Do We Mourn for Rabbi Akiva's Mistaken Students
Rabbi Dov Nossel
Lag B'Omer 5765
As the Jewish people march from liberation from Egypt to revelation at Sinai we would expect an element of excitment-perhaps even a celebration. Instead each year we spend most of this period between Pesach and Shavous in mourning. Why?
The Talmud relates, "Rebbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Givat until Antparas. They all died during one period because they did not bestow honour on each other. The world became desolate [of Torah], until R' Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught them. R' Meir, R' Yehuda, R' Yossi, R' Shimon and R' Elazar ben Shamua re-established Torah at that time. It was taught, "All of them [students] died from Pesach until Shavuos."
These points require some pondering. The Talmud tells us that R' Akiva's students were disrespectful, but it is difficult to understand how this could have happened to students of such a great Rebbe. Additionally, if it did happened why call them students of R' Akiva, dragging R' Akiva's name down with them? Furthermore why tell us that their death was followed by a desolation of Torah? If anything it should have been a rectification of Torah. Moreover, wasn't R' Akiva and our five masters still around? Why does the Talmud Tell us that the world was desolate of Torah?
It helps to have an idea of the critical period within Jewish history R' Akiva and his students lived in to grasp the deeper understanding of this piece of Talmud and for the reason why we mourn for R' Akiva's students during the Omer. Our Sages say that the world will exist as we know it for 6,000 years. These years are divided into three periods of 2,000 years. The first is called "Tov VaVohu" [confusion]. The second is the period of Torah from Avraham Avinu moving through Sinai and ending at......R' Akiva. The third period is that of Moshiach. This starts with the five (Chamesh) recipients of R' Akiva's revised teachings. Chamesh and Moshiach share the same letters.
It is very likely that the students of R' Akiva were not disrespectful people. They were after all the students of R' Akiva. However, they placed all of their respect to their master R' Akiva and not elsewhere. They understood that in order to grow in Torah they needed to make themselves empty receptacles for the sweet waters of their true master.
That was all well and good for the 2,000 years of Torah, but HaShem's plan was to add on a final period. Ultimately he wants an era of Moshiach where everyone becomes a master. This means they become a unique contribution, delivering an individual teaching to the world.
During each of our marches to the revelation at Sinai we also have to undergo a period of being "students of R.' Akiva." That means to be humble, selfless and devoted for our master teachers. Therefore if is especially important during the Omer that we mourn for those great Talmidim of that great master. However, we have learnt from them that there has to be a paradigm shift. Ultimately each of us has the ability to reach a point where our unique contribution to the Jewish People can and should be felt. On the 33rd day of the Omer we stop our mourning and celebrate the continuation for the 4th of the five masters who R' Akiva launched into the era of the Mashiach - R' Shimon on the 33rd day of the Omer we stop our mourning to celebrate the unique contribution of R'Shimon bar Yochai.