It strikes me as odd that Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 talmidim died apparently because of interpersonal issues yet he is attributed as having said that veahavta lireacha kamocha is a "klal gadol batorah". I've not found anyone that discusses this and was wondering if anyone else has or can shed any more light on it?
Chassidic thought explains that because every person is unique in his nature and thought processes, he has a unique path in the service of G-d. Similarly, each of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples had his own approach. Because they were highly developed individuals, each had internalized his particular approach to the point that it dominated his personality.
Operating from within his own perspective, each considered any approach different from his own as incomplete, inadequate and inferior. Being men of integrity, they no doubt spoke their minds plainly. And since all were intensely involved in their own paths of service, none would change. The tension between them escalated, as the deep commitment every student felt to his own particular approach prevented him from showing respect for those who followed a different path.
What was wrong with the students’ perspective? Nothing and everything.
Nothing, because every one of the paths proposed by the students could have been correct.
And everything, because their tunnel-vision prevented them from seeing any version of the truth other than their own.
No matter how deeply we are involved in our own service to G-d, we must remain broadminded enough to appreciate that someone else may have a different approach. Although, from our perspective, other paths may appear inadequate, this perception may stem from our own limitations.
Furthermore, even if someone is indeed underdeveloped, his deficiencies need not prevent us from looking upon him in a favorable light. For every individual possesses a potential for growth. We should concentrate on helping others realize that potential, rather than merely accentuating their need to do so.
They loved each other; Alot. They loved each other so much that they had to ensure that the other served Hashem in the most optimal manner (the one they considered to be the most optimal manner). This (fairly obviously) resulted in fights.
(PS. Very apropos to a lot of people!)
I asked Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum, shlita, how every one of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students could not have treated each other with proper respect when Rabbi Akiva had taught that the most important pasuk in the Torah was "V'Ahavta l'Reacha Kamocha . . ." ("you shall love your fellow as yourself")? He answered with another question: "The better question is when did he teach that -- before or after the deaths of his students?" He said that the Gemara does not give us that context. It is possible, maybe probable, that he taught it after their deaths.
Dorash Dovid on sefirah page 185(Hebrew edition) explains that the time between pesach and shavuos is like chol hamoed it is a holy time.He then explains that the greater one is the greater their yetzer harah becomes(sukkah 52a).On shvuos they bring chametz for the shtei halechem instead of the usual matzah,to remind us of the yetzer harsh and to overcome it.on Mayan Torah one works to be elevated and therefore through attaining kedusha the yetzer harah gets stronger and one needs to be reminded of this.
He ends by saying that when a person tries to work on something particular , it is that thing the yetzer harah tries to get them.It is for this reason since the talmidim knew how important the mitzvah of vahvtah is the more they yetzer harah tried to get them to slip.It is also for this reason why it happened during the time of sefirah since it is a holy time the yetzer harah is stronger than usual.
see it inside for more detail.
Rav Asher Weiss addresses1 this question in his article on B'har of תשע"ח (toward the bottom, after the headline topic). He suggests that the students of Rabbi Akiva were divinely held to a much higher standard than the rest of us for interpersonal relations.
This could have been because Rabbi Akiva himself held human dignity in such high regard, so they were expected to know better. Therefore the lapse for which they suffered may have been a relatively minor one. (This bears some resemblance to sam's 2nd answer.)
Or it could have been a reflection of their putative role in the transmission of Torah sheb'al peh, which should have been a major one. The potential for it to have been is evidenced by the 5 intellectual heirs of Rabbi Akiva who ended up replacing them as his students becoming the composers of so many influential oral Torah works.
1 He's actually addressing the question of how interpersonal disrespect could be a capital crime, but this issue is related, in his approach.
Having checked various sources, I will share with you the comments made by our sages. The majority opinion is that these students of Rabbi Akiva were guilty of stingeness. They were disappointed and dissatisfied with the success of others in Torah studies. They looked grudgingly at each other and their selfishness was their downfall. They were jealous of each other and lacked unity. They were not greeting each other with respect nor accepted others opinions and felt that they were right in all aspects. So they were punished and they died.
But to this view point, I have the following questions - how could all the students commit the same sin at the same time? Rabbi Akiva taught to love and care for each other so how could his students miss this important lesson? Was it not the failure of the greatest teacher in Jewish education? Why mourn for such students who did not learn the basics from their teacher? Is there capital punishment for those who disrespect each other? If rabbi Akiva was not able to influence his students then wasn't death deserving for the students?
The Gemara talks about a moral dilemma wherein when two people are traveling in a desert and only one has a water bottle. One opinion is that he should share the water with the other than watch the other die. But in this way, both will die eventually. The other opinion is of Rabbi Akiva that says that I am First so I will drink and survive.
The students of Rabbi Akiva were the soldiers in the Bar Kochba revolt. We read in the Hagaddah that students came to attend the seder of Rabbi Akiva. They were discussing about the Exodus from Egypt the whole night until their students came at dawn to tell them that the time for Kiriat Shema had come. Actually they were discussing about the rebellion. That was a cover up and the code to the call of Kiriat shema was the readiness of students to accept the yoke of Hashem and to fight against the Romans.
The students went to war with the Romans but with a wrong philosophy of Rabbi Akiva. I am First only in times of peace but in times of war the soldier has to think about his fellow soldiers. This kavod was missing in the battle and they did not conduct nicely with each other.
So the students were holy men and martyrs who were killed in the war and hence we have semi mourning for them. Rabbi Akiva was the best teacher. Actually the period between Pesach and shavout was very harsh for the Jews. They were the days of judgement and persecution. Crusades, pogroms and blood libel against the Jews took place during that period along with the death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva and hence we mourn for their deaths.