Yevamos 62b: Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Gevas to Antipras, and all of them died in the same period, because they did not treat each other respectfully. And the world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south… and they were the ones who built back the Torah at that time.
Bereishis Rabbah 61:3: Because they were stingy with each other. And in the end he established seven disciples… he said to them, “My sons! The first ones died because they were stingy with each other. Be careful not to do what they did.” They arose and filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.
יבמות סב ע”ב: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא, מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה, והיה העולם שמם, עד שבא ר״ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום, ושנאה להם ר״מ ור׳ יהודה ור׳ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה.
ובבראשית רבה סא,ג מסיים: למה? שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו באלו. ובסוף העמיד שבעה וכו’ אמר להם בניי, הראשונים לא מתו אלא שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו לאלו תנו דעתכם שלא תעשו כמעשיהם, עמדו ומלאו כל ארץ ישראל תורה.
In June of 1999, Michael Kaufman, founder of VISA (Visiting Israel Students Association) and today a lecturer at Aish Hatorah, brought 25 college age young men and women, with little or no Jewish background, to attend kiruv programs in Jerusalem. Unlike VISA’s usual “foreign exchange” students, this group had not been attracted to the country in order to study at universities, but only because the tour was heavily subsidized, costing them very little.
At the end of the tour, Michael had the idea to bring them to see the Mirrer Yeshiva. The other leaders of the tour thought it would be a turn off, but he persisted. They first visited the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who asked them each about themselves, their families and hometowns. Then they walked through the beis medrash and watched the hundreds of talmidim learning, most of whom paid virtually no attention to the visitors. Everyone was awed by the experience.
As they went out, two of the boys came over to Michael and said, “We want to learn here.” When he recovered from his shock, Michael said, “You know, of course, that what you’re saying might be akin to children in kindergarten announcing that they would like to take courses in nuclear physics.” “If what they learn there is the Jewish nuclear physics, then that’s exactly what we want to do,” replied the boys.
Michael consulted with Reb Nosson Tzvi, who gave his approval. While the rest of the group flew back to the States, arrangements were made with a number of American bachurim to leave their regular chavrusas for one hour every day, in order to learn with these two novices in a non-structured manner for the next two months. At the end of this period, the two college students concluded that it would be best to learn in a yeshiva that catered to their backgrounds. So they left Mir to attend institutions for baalei teshuva in Jerusalem, where they stayed for a number of years. Today both are married with children; one is learning in a kollel in Jerusalem, and the other works in kiruv in a western American city.
Michael came to Reb Nosson Tzvi again after that summer and commented that several of the Mir bochurim showed great potential in the field of kiruv. He suggested that they attend a 90-minute class each week, for six weeks, on kiruv techniques. “Absolutely not!” said Reb Nosson Tzvi. “Their job here is to learn Torah – not to be involved in anything else but the study of Torah!”
“But,” Michael protested, “the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 61:3) says that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim died because they were stingy with each other. This is usually explained to mean that they were concerned only with learning Torah for themselves, and not with others.”
At this point the Rosh Yeshiva recited the continuation of the Midrash from memory: “And Rabbi Akiva subsequently appointed seven talmidim – Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov… and said to them: ‘My sons, the first disciples died only because their approach to Torah was narrow. Make it your business not to emulate them – don’t learn Torah only for yourselves, but rather go out and teach it to others. Therefore, they went out and filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.”
Reb Nosson Tzvi then smiled and said, “The seven talmidim whom Rabbi Akiva sent out were established talmidei chachomim. Our talmidim are not yet in that category. Their task is to learn Torah and to grow in Torah until they attain the status of talmidei chachomim. Until that time, they must remain within the walls of the beis medrash.”
Sources: In One Era, Out the Other, by Michael Kaufman p. 436-442; quoted in For the Love of Torah, by Hanoch Teller, p. 214-218
[To be sure, the seven Tannaim mentioned were already great talmidei chachomim before they began to spread Torah. But how did Reb Nosson Tzvi deduce that the earlier 24,000 were on such a level? Perhaps they were young beginners, and still they were faulted for not sharing whatever they knew with others! – Apparently, Reb Nosson Tzvi reasoned that since the Midrash compares the two groups, they must have been on a similar level.
But we can conjecture that Reb Nosson Tzvi’s position was based on his own wisdom and experience, not only on the Midrash. He held that yeshiva talmidim should not go into kiruv until they have accumulated enough Torah knowledge to answer the questions posed by Jews who have grown up in the modern secular world, instead of just repeating what they have been taught to say, or referring the questioners to others. Also, he was concerned that kiruv workers should be strong enough in their own knowledge and emunah not to be influenced by the people and material they may encounter.]