The importance of each individual is certainly something that we are all aware of. We saw at the outset of the book of Numbers that God loves each individual and views our very existence as an opportunity to demonstrate that love.
The Lord spoke to Moses... saying, "Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers' houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names." (Numbers 1:1-2) Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt... when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf... when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them... on the first of Iyar, He counted them. (Rashi to verse 2)
Sometimes, however, we get so bogged down by our own needs and responsibilities that we forget that to be part of God's nation means to share His devotion, compassion and love with every one of our brethren, particularly those who need it most. In that light it is noteworthy that the Sinai experience was shared not by individuals, but by an entire nation, millions of people who stood around Mount Sinai with a singular sense of purpose and destiny.
They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:2) And Israel encamped there: [using the singular form, denoting that they encamped there] as one man with one heart. (Rashi ibid)
Unity and communal connectivity are prerequisites for receiving the Torah. They speak directly to its fundamental status as a national guide, a means through which we learn to better interact and appreciate one another. They also serve as the basis for our own personal acquisition of its wisdom. "The knowledge of the Torah can be acquired only in association with others." (Berachoth 63b)
Perhaps this is why the period that directly precedes our receiving of the Torah has come to be identified with the central issue of interpersonal matters. As we know, one of the defining aspects of the sefirah period is the expression of mourning in commemoration of the death of Rabbi Akiba's 24,000 students during the early-second century CE. Yevamoth 62b states that all of these great men died between Passover and Shavuoth because they did not treat each other with ample reverence.
At first glance this punishment seems unusually severe. Certainly, it is of great importance to treat each individual respectfully. Still, where do we ever find that weakness in this interpersonal regard is punishable by death?
Further complicating matters is the parallel account of this event recorded in the Genesis Rabbah 61:3. The midrash states that the reason behind their deaths was not due to a lack of respect, but rather the fact that they "looked grudgingly" at (i.e. were envious of) each other.
This problem of envy would later become so clear to Rabbi Akiba that when he started teaching again with a small group of new students he first warned the, "My sons, the earlier ones died only because they begrudged each other (knowledge of the Torah). See to it that you do not act similarly." Duly counseled, these new students, who included such future luminaries as Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Simon, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Jose, achieved such collective greatness that they "filled all of Israel with Torah."
The fact is that these two different explanations for the death of these 24,000 students are not in fact conflicting. Rather, they express two aspects of the same issue. The more visible component was the lack of respect between students. However, the basis for that disrespect was their inability to tolerate each other's' greatness, perceiving that somehow it took away from own their rightful status.
Rabbi Jonah, writing in Shaarei Teshuva (Gates of Repentance, 3:160), explains that one can fulfill all of the mitzvos to the fullest degree and still be one who hates God if he is bothered when he sees others serving God as well. Such a person is not serving their Maker out of a true desire to fulfill His will, but rather for the purpose of enhancing his own personal stature.
This is what occurred with Rabbi Akiba's students. The grudge that they held against each other was caused by jealousy, an inability to truly appreciate each other's greatness. This, in turn, impacted their willingness to treat each other with the requisite degree of respect.
This is not to say that Judaism categorically frowns upon human envy. On the contrary, jealousy that inspires one to achieve greater heights is permitted and even encouraged. However, envy that fosters a feeling of resentment can only bring pain and destruction. The former looks up to his colleagues, continuously aspiring to reach their lofty levels. The latter seeks to bring his friends down to his level, and belittles their accomplishments.
These great students of Rabbi Akiba died because they made improper, selfish use of the Torah. "He who makes improper use of the crown of Torah passes away." (Avoth 4:5) They were punished specifically during the sefirah period because they failed to uphold the honor of the Torah during this period in which we ready ourselves to properly receive it.
As the anniversary of the giving of the Torah (beginning Tuesday evening) draws near, let us remember this important lesson. The Torah was not given to a collection of individuals. Rather, it was bestowed upon a nation, a group that viewed each other as a central and crucial part of the process. Thinking in such terms will not only draw us nearer to one another, but position us to receive the Torah as a more sublime and fulfilling level than otherwise possible.