Lessons of a plague
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Lessons of a plague

A modern lesson from Rabbi Akiva's pupils

Among the greatest figures in Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva shines. The Talmud compares him to Moses, which is the ultimate compliment. Rabbi Akiva was a leading scholar and a sage who lived between the first and second century CE and contributed a great deal to the Mishnah, which is a compilation of the oral tradition of Jewish law.

From all the 613 commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah, Rabbi Akiva recognized that the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” is among the most valuable.

Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, but sadly, between Passover and the 33rd day after it, known also as the 33rd day of the Omer, or Lag B’Omer, almost all of them perished from a plague. The Talmud explains that the reasons for this plague were the students’ judgmental behaviors and their lack of respect for each other. Until the plague struck, the Omer was an annual celebratory 49-day count leading to the historic reception of the Torah. Following Akiva’s tragedy, however, the first 33 days of the Omer became days of mourning. Jews cannot get married, listen to live concerts, have parties or even get a haircut during these weeks.

We have known many cases of plagues and other disasters throughout Jewish history. Why commemorate this plague and mourn these lives? One reason is the significance of the lesson this plague teaches us: love for one’s neighbor.

In light of the upcoming Lag B’Omer holiday, and as tribute to Rabbi Akiva and his followers who paid the price for their disrespectful behavior, I’d like to reflect on the value of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. It is a powerful instruction but often hard to abide by. It is easy to love one’s neighbors when they are similar in appearances, behaviors, worldviews or ways of life. Much less so when they are not.

In the U.S. we often teach our children about inclusiveness. But inclusiveness is not merely about accepting different appearances. It is also about tolerating different worldviews and opinions. By definition, differing perspectives need to coexist for a discourse to contain a free exchange of ideas. Sadly, most of us only like to hear opinions in line with our own. This narrow perspective is exacerbated when we lose respect for those with whom we disagree.

Polarization over political views is nothing new. When we become convinced that there’s only one morally correct option, other opinions are immediately condemned. If you support the “wrong” side of any issue, have no doubt that someone will think you are evil.

Now, the pandemic lockdown has extended our polarizations even beyond our politics.

Can we go for a walk? Should we wear a mask while walking? Should we help an out-of-town friend take shelter here? When and how should we lift the lockdown? Is the lockdown’s economic toll too severe? Lately, many such pointed questions are being asked. Should merely asking these questions be perceived as provocative, uncompassionate or worse? Should we defame and shame people who take one side or the other?

It is one thing to love others when things are going well. It is another thing to express that love when times are tough. In this stressful time, under the coronavirus lockdown, I find more and more judgment in our community.

Since we are currently minimizing face-to-face interactions, our primary recourse for connection is social media. This is unfortunate because behind screens people use sharper words and harsher tones. Not only are opinions more commonly disrespected, but so are the people expressing them. Rabbi Akiva’s students died of a plague. But our sages remember their death as a punishment for disrespecting each other. This is because words, tone and conduct matter.

So here it is, my unpacking of lessons of another plague for the present one. Do not repeat the mistakes of Akiva’s pupils. Be less judgmental, even in such stressful times. Do not make others afraid to state their opinions. Remember that a free exchange of ideas is only free if the discourse is grounded in respect. We should aspire to live by Rabbi Akiva’s emphasized principle from the Torah: to love the members of our community as ourselves. PJC

Anat Talmy is a software engineer living in Pittsburgh.

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