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rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.

Today we celebrate Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer. This day marks the ending of a terrible plague that took the lives of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. The Talmud teaches us that the cause of this plague was that the students “did not treat each other with mutual respect.”  It is hard to believe that these students, who were on an extremely high spiritual and moral level, could fail at one of their teacher’s core principles. It was Rabbi Akiva who taught that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18) is the foundation of the entire Torah. How could it be that these students erred so greatly in their teacher’s fundamental principle? Rabbi Benjamin Blech attempts to answer this question by exploring the difference between love and respect: 

Love and respect, much as we often connect them, aren’t really the same thing at all...Love and respect are the two most important aspects not only of marriage but of parenting and of all significant relationships as well. Peter Gray, who has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education, put it this way: ‘Love without respect is dangerous; it can crush the other person, sometimes literally. To respect is to understand that the other person is not you, not an extension of you, not a reflection of you, not your toy, not your pet, not your product. In a relationship of respect, your task is to understand the other person as a unique individual and learn how to mesh your needs with his or hers and help that person achieve what he or she wants to achieve. Your task is not to control the other person or try to change him or her in a direction that you desire but he or she does not. I think this applies as much to parent-child relationships as to husband-wife relationships.’

Rabbi Blech further differentiates between these two values by exploring different mitzvot in which we are commanded to love or respect:

Perhaps the area in which the difference between love and respect becomes most clear is with regard to one’s self. The biblical commandment reads 'love your neighbor as yourself' because self-love is assumed – who doesn’t love and want to do everything possible for their own selves? Yet self-respect is an ideal so often found wanting, especially among those who will tell you that they love to pursue anything which will make them happy.

It is fascinating that the Torah did not command us to love our parents. It told us to honor and respect them. Love can worship without reason. Respect adds worth and esteem to the equation. It clothes love in garments of admiration, approval and appreciation.

If we apply this concept to the original question, we see that while the students of Rabbi Akiva may have loved their fellow Jews, that does not guarantee that they actually respected each other: 

The students of Rabbi Akiva must’ve acknowledged the religious requirement stressed by their teacher to love their fellow man. Perhaps they even verbalized affection and willingness to help their colleagues when necessary. The one thing however they failed to do was to live their lives with mutual respect for each other, because they didn’t understand that that was the next step their Rabbi intended for them to master as necessary part of their spiritual growth.

Rabbi Blech concludes with the following message:

For 32 days students died. The number 32 as a Hebrew word has special significance. It spells the word lev – heart. The heart is the source of love. But love alone, without respect, will perish. And so the students died until they went beyond that number. The plague ended on the 33rd day, observed as Lag B’Omer. Hopefully we learn from the holiday’s profound message that respect is needed to complete love.