A Timely Lesson
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Our Sages teach us that a great tragedy occurred between Pesach and Shavuoth. During this time period, 24,000 of Rebbi Akiva’s students had perished from a plague. Therefore, we are accustomed to observing a semi-mourning period during this time.
The Midrash says that the students of Rebbi Akiva perished because they were ‘narrow eyed’ one to the other. It is important to understand the meaning of ‘narrow eyed’ so that we learn the lesson of this time period.
Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, in his work Sifsei Chaim, explains that when one student would see another student succeed, he/she would begrudge the success of the other student. To be ‘open eyed’ means to be generous of spirit and joyous at the success of others. To be ‘closed eyes’ means to secretly be pained by the success of others. I believe that the students of Rebbi Akiva were externally kind towards one another, however, they were unhappy when they witnessed their friends’ achievements.
Rebbi Akiva stated that the greatest principle in the Torah is the following verse: “You shall love your fellow as yourself”. Nachmanides proves that the verse does not mean that our love for others should be as great as the love of ourselves. The Torah is commanding us to want for others what we wish for ourselves. We all want good health, blessing, and accomplishment, and this is exactly what the Torah is commanding us to want for others. Ironically, it was Rebbi Akiva’s first group of students who did not internalize this message. Perhaps Rebbi Akiva taught this teaching in response to this very tragedy.
The critical question that remains is: How do we work on this character trait? How do we avoid jealousy of the success and advancement of others, who often seem to be succeeding far beyond our own successes? There are many techniques one can employ to work on one’s joy at the success of others. Very often we don’t celebrate the success of others because our egos feel threatened. Often the success of others shakes our images of ourselves, making us feel inadequate, and we, therefore, begrudge the success of others. One way of working on this is to minimize our ego-driven sense of self and realize that we have a far deeper self that cannot be threatened by anyone, a self that is magnanimous and rejoices at the success of others. A great tool for accomplishing this is mindfulness practice, a practice that enables us to fully fulfill the Mitzvah of loving our fellows like ourselves.