To love is easy, to respect is hard
“Twelve thousand pairs of students were under Rebbi Akiva, and they all died in one chapter for they did not act respectfully to each other. It was taught, they all died from Pesach until Shavuot. They all died a bad death.” (Talmud, Yevamot 62b).
There is something that really bothers me about this piece of Talmud, namely, were these students of Rebbi Akiva “goodies” or “baddies”?
On the one hand, they seem to be real baddies. To treat each other without respect certainly sounds pretty bad. And the Talmud tells us that they all suffered a “bad death”.
On the other, they seem to be real goodies. After all, the Talmud calls them Rebbi Akiva’s students. It doesn’t say that there were 12 000 pairs of dropouts from Rebbi Akiva! Furthermore, their demise is mourned for more than a month every year by every Jew. It could be that no other people in the history of the world are mourned to the same extent.
So which one is it?
It’s both. This profound Talmudic text teaches us the tension between two magnificent human traits: love and respect.
Rebbi Akiva taught love. It was none other than Rebbi Akiva who said, “Love your fellow as yourself.” This is a great principle of the Torah. No doubt, it’s the reason why his students were described as being in pairs. If the Talmud wanted to emphasise the enormity of their numbers, it should have said 24 000 individuals. But it said 12 000 pairs because it wanted to reveal their inseparability, and to emphasise the enormity of their love for each other.
Why, then, did they die? The Talmud is teaching us that they died not in spite of their love for each other, they died because of it.
The core power of love is commonality. People love each other because they share things in common. It’s this commonality that brings them together and unites them. It allows them to become one.
But people in love becoming one has its problems. First, it leads to sameness, and sameness leads to redundancy. And second, it leads to exclusivity, and exclusivity leads to rejection.
This is why the students of Rebbi Akiva died “in the same chapter”, because they all lived only “in the same chapter”. And it’s why they were able to love each other, but weren’t able to respect each other, because love is based on sameness, respect is based on difference.
The Talmud is teaching us about the goodness and importance of love, about the students of love who learnt from a rebbe of love, who taught a Torah of love. And we mourn those students to this day out of our love for them.
But the Talmud is also teaching us the dangers of love. To love is easy, to respect is hard. To love is to remove otherness, to respect is to admire it.
As great as love is, by itself, it has no future. It’s when love leads to respect that it will lead to Sinai, and a better future for all.