The forty-nine days that connect Pesach with Shavuot correspond to the forty-nine drives and traits of the human heart. In the desert each day saw the refinement of one of the sefirotthat reflect these traits, which brought Klal Yisrael closer to achieving the level needed to obtain the holy Torah.
Each year we retrace this inner journey with our “Counting of the Omer.” Beginning on the second night of Pesach, the day during which the korban haOmer was sacrificed, we show our thirst for Matan Torah and we begin to count the days and weeks – “Today is one day to the Omer,” “Today is seven days, which are one week to the Omer,” and so on – until “Today is forty-nine days, which are seven weeks to the Omer.” The number seven represents completion, as the entire world was created and completed in seven days. “Shavuot” means “Weeks,” teaching us that by the time Matan Torah is reached, and one had just completed seven cycles of seven, a forty-nine-step process of self-refinement, he is complete and ready to become a servant of Hashem and receive the Torah.
On the day of Shavuot, the korban of “Sheteh Halechem,” which is made of wheat, is sacrificed. This korban is unlike the korban haOmer brought on the second day of Pesach, which is made of barley. This hints to us that prior to the forty-nine days we were on an animal-like level, as animals would eat simple barley. But now, after we have acquired a higher level, we offer a korban made up of wheat, which is eaten by humans.
But in the middle of all this excitement of improving one’s self and preparing for Matan Torah, for the most part we are actually practicing several forms of mourning. The Gemara in Yebamot (62) explains: Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four-thousand students, all of whom passed away due to not treating each other with the proper respect.
One might ask: Can it really be true?
Could it be that thousands of students of one of the greatest Tana’im – a man who restored Torah and halacha to Klal Yisrael – passed away for not treating each other with the proper respect? Furthermore, one may ask, why would it occur during a time that Klal Yisrael are preparing to receive the Torah?
The Midrash Tanhuma cites a pasuk in Mishleh: “Do not rob a poor man because he is poor,anddo not crush the poor man in the gate.”Firstly, why would the pasuk need to tell us, “Because he is poor”? And second, if he is poor – then what is there to steal?
The midrash explains that the pasuk means that if a person who used to support a poor man decides to discontinue his support, it is considered as though he is stealing from the poor person.
Perhaps through this interpretation we can better understand what really happened with Rabbi Akiva’s students. Maybe they did not actually act wrongly or do anything inherently bad, but if, for example, one regularly greeted his friend every morning, and then stopped, it is like he stole and purposely did not greet him. “Hashem is meticulous with the righteous like a hairsbreadth.”
Perhaps that is also one of the reasons they passed away during the time of year when we are preparing to receive the Torah. It is to teach us that without unity and the proper respect for one another it’s impossible to properly serve Hashem and accept the Torah even if your teacher is Rabbi Akiva.
It is imperative that we always keep in mind that Klal Yisrael accepted the Torah, “Keh’ish echad be’lev echad” – “As one man with one heart.”