Rabbi Yonason Sacks
V'Haamidu Talmidim Harbeh
The Avos D'Rebbe Nosson teaches that while Beis Shammai would only teach students who were fitting, modest, and G-d fearing, Beis Hillel believed in teaching every student. Similarly, the Gemarah in Maseches Berachos (28a) records that Rabban Gamliel denied access to the study hall to any student who was "ein tocho k"baro - his external behavior does not reflect his inner essence", but R' Elazar Ben Azaryah opened access to all who wished to learn. According to R' Shimon B'R Tzemach Doran, the Mishnah's imperative of "v"ha"amidu talmidim harbeh" instructs us to follow the examples of Beis Hillel and R' Elazar ben Azarya, teaching all students, regardless of intellectual or personal aptitude. R' Shimon adds that the scope of this command is two-fold. Firstly, one is commanded to teach many students at a single sitting, to ensure the proliferation of talmidei chachamim. Secondly, one must teach students in one's youth, and continue to do so in one's old age, as the Gemarah (Yevamos 62b) relates regarding R' Akiva. Although all 24,000 of R' Akiva's original students perished during the period of Sefiras HaOmer (since they did not show proper respect to one another), R' Akiva continued to teach in his old age, and established some of the greatest scholars our nation has ever known: R' Meir, R' Nechemia, R' Yehuda, R' Shimon, R' Elazar.
The devastating loss and subsequent replacement of R' Akiva's students may further shed light on our Mishnah. R' Asher Weiss (Sichos al HaTorah, Parshas Kedoshim) questions the seemingly draconian punishment of R' Akiva's students: granted that one is obligated to show honor to respect to another, but does the failure to do so warrant death? R' Weiss explains that perhaps R' Akiva's students were held to a higher standard, as they were expected to be "ma"atikei hashamuah" - promulgators of the teachings of R' Akiva to future generations. R' Akiva himself both exemplified and taught the highest standard of interpersonal conduct. For example, later in Maseches Avos (3:14), R' Akiva teaches, "chaviv adam shenivra b"tzelem - Dear is man, for he was created in the image (of G-d)." Similarly, R' Akiva's statement from the Toras Kohanim, "v"ahavta l"reiacha kamocha zeh klal gadol baTorah - Love your neighbor as yourself' - this is a great principle in the Torah" - is often cited. R' Akiva's entire essence pertained to interpersonal love and respect. Because his students failed to follow their Rebbe's example, and perhaps more significantly, to transmit his teachings in a pure, unadulterated fashion, they received a harsh punishment.
R' Weiss continues that although the early students of R' Akiva met an untimely end bereft of any lasting legacy, R' Akiva's later students, "raboseinu shebadarom - our rabbis from the South," rose to unparalleled heights under the tutelage of their teacher. In fact, the Gemarah (Sanhedrin 86a) teaches that the majority of the corpus of the Oral Law consists of these students' teachings: an anonymous Mishnah is attributed to R' Meir; an anonymous Sifra to R' Yehudah; an anonymous Sifrei to R' Shimon; and an anonymous Tosefta to R' Nechemia. Thus, these students clearly succeeded.
In fact, R' Weiss notes, if one looks further, the teachings of each one of "raboseinu shebadarom" exemplified interpersonal traits, echoing the words of their teacher R' Akiva. For example, R' Meir teaches (Tanchuma Vayechi 2) "kol hamevarech es Yisroel k"ilu mevarech es Hashechinah - one who blesses Israel is like one who blesses the Divine Presence", and (Avos 4:10) "hevei shfal ruach bifnei kola dam - be lowly of spirit before every person. Moreover, the Yerushalmi (Sota 1:2) relates R' Meir's own personal stellar interpersonal character traits.
Similarly, R' Yehuda teaches (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:15) that "kol hamekabel pnei chaveirav k"ilu mekabel pnei Hashechinah - one who greets one's fellow is like one who greets the Divine Presence". R' Yosei ben Chalafta, who was also among the final students of R' Akiva, teaches (Shabbos 118a), "miyomai lo avarti al divrei chaverai, yodeah ani b"atzmi she"eini kohein, v"af al pi kein im omrim li chaveirai aleh laduchan hayisi oleh - all my days, I never violated the words of my friend; I know that I am not a Kohen, but if my friend instructed me to ascend to the platform (upon which the Kohanim bless the nation), I would do so". Similarly, (Bava Metzia 33a) "d"adilu lo hey"ir (chaveiro) einav ela b"mishna achas hu rabbo - even if one's friend merely helped one understand a single Mishnah, (one's friend) is considered one's Rebbe (worthy of honor)". R' Shimon also underscored the importance of interpersonal conduct, teaching (Berachos 43b)"noach lo la"adam sheyapeel atzmo l"kivshan hoeish v"al yalbin penei chaveiro borabbim - better that one throw oneself into a fiery furnace rather than whiten the face of (i.e., embarrass) one's friend in public". R' Elazar ben Shamoa also stressed these aspects, teaching (Avos 4:15),"yehi kvod talmidcha chaviv alecha k"shelach ukvod chavercha k"morah rabboch umorah rabboch k"morah shomayim - let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own honor, and the honor of your friend like the honor of your Rabbi, and the honor of your Rabbi like the honor of Heaven". Finally, R' Nechemia stressed (Shabbos 32b) that through the sin of baseless hatred, strife emerges in one's home.
What emerges from all of these sources is that, like their Rebbe, R' Akiva's later students exemplified the importance of interpersonal conduct. Perhaps it was specifically through this emphasis - not their brilliance or intellectual acumen - that they merited to become the progenitors of our Oral Tradition. It is in the merit of these giants that our Torah is still transmitted to this very day.