“Rabbi, are you growing a beard?”
It’s a question I hear often at this time of the year.
The period between Pesach and Shavuot is marked by the counting of the omer.
This time is know as Sefirah, the time of year that the Code of Jewish Law tells us of the custom not to take haircuts or trim beards (there are some exceptions to this custom) and not to have weddings, all as signs of mourning — there are different customs to the exact days. This time of the year was designated as a period of mourning because of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who died during this time, about 1,900 years ago.
At the time, it was most definitely a great tragedy, but why remember those sad memories of long ago each and every year?
Unfortunately, Jewish history is marked with greater tragedies in terms of numbers of Jews killed, both before and after the time of Rabbi Akiva and his students.
We can understand why we still mourn, if we understand why Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the first place.
The Talmud tells us that the students died because they did not act with the proper kavod — honor — to each other.
What does kavod mean? One way to understand the word kavod is through its root meaning, which means “heavy.” If someone walks by you on the street, you may not notice him; but if he were seven feet tall and weighed 300 pounds, you would surely notice him. You might even move out of his way. If he were to share his opinion with you, you would choose not to argue with him, even if you disagreed with his world view.
Kavod, we can understand, means first and foremost recognizing that another person exists and is part of your life. The word for a cruel person in Hebrew is an achzor. Rabbi Yissachar Frand said that the word achzor can be broken into two words: ach (only) and zar (stranger). A cruel person is someone who says about someone else: “You are a stranger to me, you live on the other side of the lake, you are not a member of my synagogue; you do not share my lifestyle.”
Another part of kavod is to give weight to another person’s opinion. Rabbi Elisha Paul noted that the Talmud says, “Just as each person has different facial features, so too each person has different ways of thinking.” Why does the Talmud compare faces to opinions? Only to teach us that just as when it comes to faces, I do not want my face to look exactly like anyone else’s and I do not want someone else’s face to look exactly like mine. So too when it comes to ways of thinking: I should not want everyone to think exactly like me, nor do I want to think the exact same thoughts as others. Kavod means to respect another person’s opinon; to see that their thoughts have “weight,” even if you don’t agree with his or her thinking.
Still a higher aspect of treating others with kavod is to have compassion or heart for someone else. Now that we recognize others as “heavyweights” and we acknowledge their unique way of thinking, we are to have compassion toward them and their unique needs. The word Kavod in Hebrew has the numeric value of 32, the same as the Hebrew word for heart (lev), and most have a custom to mourn for 32 days.
The reason we take on a few of the actions and signs of mourning during the days of Sefirah is not because of the ancient tragedy, but because of the great tragedy that still exists today. The tragic way we’re still lacking in showing and giving proper kavod to each other. We are still selfish and we still don’t give proper “weight” to others. We still do not recognize them as part of our little world, people to whom we don’t feel close, people who think differently then we do. Even more tragically, we still allow others to urge their friends not to support people who have different views, giving them permission to slander and malign others.
That is we why we still mourn today. That is why we proudly go without trimming our hair during these days of Sefirah, as a reminder to ourselves and to our friends that we must act with kavod toward one another. In the merit of all of us showing the proper kavod toward one another, may we merit the ultimate peace with the coming of Moshiach.