A. Rabbi Akiva’s Disciples
The twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died between Passover and Shavuot (Source 1), and to commemorate this tragedy, we observe certain customs of mourning (Source 2).
The Rebbe asks: How is it possible that specifically the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who lived and breathed ahavat Yisrael, were the ones who failed to respect each other?
The answer is that they behave so precisely because they were his students: They were committed with heart and soul to their master, so they couldn’t bear if someone understood their master’s teachings in a way which they viewed as misguided. And since no two people think alike, they all thought that the others were misguided.
It was specifically because they loved each other that they didn’t respect each other (which could often be the case, as expressed in Source 3).
B. A Confluence of Factors
The story is still problematic: Did they really deserve to die simply for lacking in respect for one-another? And did they all suddenly decide to sin at once?
The answer can be found in a similar story in the Jerusalem Talmud, where are large number of students “died in a short period of time,” just as in our case (Source 4).
In that story, the reason is ascribed to the evil eye. Perhaps this was the case here as well: Rabbi Akiva’s students attracted the evil eye due to their vast numbers, and they were therefore subjected to punishment for their disrespectful behavior as well.
This story is included in the Torah to teach us that every Jew must strive for the ultimate form of ahavat Yisrael, even in cases where there might be good reason to avoid showing full respect to your fellow.