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Love vs. Respect
Sefirat Haomer is a time of character refinement. 12,000 pairs, 24,000 students of R Akiva, all died at this time for not honoring each other. (Yevamot 62b) The main Avodah during the Omer is to correct that Middah of respect.
There are three questions one can ask. R’ Akiva taught that the main rule of the entire Torah is to love your friend as you love yourself.(Sifra Kedoshim, Yerushalmi 9 Nedarim) How could R Akiva’s own students transgress the main teaching of their mentor? And why did this happen, specifically, between Pesach and Shavuoth? Also, isn’t it strange that R Akiva’s students are referred to as 12,000 “pairs”, and not 24,000 disciples?
The Shem Mishmuel answers with a beautiful twist. But first, he writes a lesson about respect. Respecting another is only possible if you recognize that the other person has a strength that you, yourself, don’t have, or if he is superior to you in some way. Respect usually stems from recognizing that the other person is greater than oneself in a certain aspect of his personality.
However, in your own body, your right hand will not show respect to your left hand. Your toe will not show respect for your ear, for both are part of one body. Respect is not applicable here; no one part is greater than another, for they are all part of the same “one”. The students of R’ Akiva learned the importance of loving one another, but they took their Rabbi’s teaching of love to the extreme. Each one felt that the others were a part of himself. They failed to accord to one another individual identity. As if they were all one. And this was their mistake. Love has no boundaries. But respect does. They loved each other with boundless love, in a way that they all felt one. That is why they are referred to as “pairs”, for no one had an identity or a boundary.
Heimish is a good thing, as long as it is not too heimish. Because when there are no boundaries, there is no respect. Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, died because of this. They got too close to G-d. Their sin was בקרבתם לפני ה’. They did not realize their boundaries. And this is the reason why R Akiva’s students died during the Sefirah. The Sefirah is a time where we count days and we count weeks. Where we give value to both: collectivity for weeks and individuality for days. The students of R’ Akiva were on such a high level that they were expected to notice this lesson of balancing individuality with unity and learn from it.
This is a lesson for all areas of life. The best way to treat your wife is how you treated her before she became your wife. The best way to treat your children is as if they are guests, even though they are your guests for 20+ years. Treat them with no less respect than you would treat your neighbor’s children. Once you perceive the kids as part of a family, part of a whole, and with no individuality, identities become blurred. The formula to the successful family is found in the balance between individuality and collectiveness. As the Haggadah mentions אחד חכם אחד רשע וכו’ One the wise, one the wicked, one the simpleton, one that doesn’t know how to ask. Why one, one, one, one? Because in order for your family to function with harmony, you have to respect each child for what he is, with his own individuality and identity.
The Mishna teaches, רבי אומר, איזוהי דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם, כל שהיא תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם. (Avot 2;1) A successful relationship, a lifelong relationship, is a balanced one. I once saw a refrigerator magnet that said, “Love is not looking into each other’s eyes. Love is looking in the same direction”. I would like to take the theory that love is about going in the “same direction” a step further. Love and relationships are like driving a car. A good driver, a smooth driver, knows how to efficiently balance two crucial elements in his car: the gas pedal and the brakes. If you overuse or underuse either of these, no one will want to be your passenger.
In the journey of relationships, there are also two pedals. There is the pedal of love. You push that pedal each time you give of your time, money, effort or soul. Saying yes. No boundaries. What is mine is yours. That is the pedal of love.
And then, there is the brake pedal. Knowing when to say no. How to say no. How to stand up for yourself. How to respect yourself and your boundaries, so that you can also respect others and their boundaries. Although the gas pedal is very important to get you where you want to go, if there are no brakes, do not get into that car!
All relationships have two main factors. Dos and Don’ts. The do’s of a relationship do not carry as much weight as the don’ts. You can give all your money, all your time, your whole Neshama, all the “do’s”, but if you are not careful to refrain from the things that you are not supposed to do, the “don’ts”, the whole relationship can come crashing down.
A common misinterpretation many Orthodox Jews have is that a Mitzvah means a good deed. A mitzvah is a commandment. The root of the word is, צוה which means command. Or, on a deeper level, a Mitzvah is a way of building a bond between the Jew and His Creator, from the word, צוותא, together.
There are positive commandments and there are negative commandments. And, just as the negative commandments are much more severe than the positive commandments, relationship issues are usually problems with Don’ts more than they are with Do’s. My experience in helping people improve socially tells me the following. Those who are doing great with the do’s but not with the don’ts have much rockier relationships than those who are good with the don’ts, but not with the do’s.
Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player said something I can’t forget. “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being”. Respect is not earned through achievement. It is insignificant what another person has accomplished. Respect is because the other person is a human being, and because he is created in the image of G-d.