In this week’s parsha we find the episode of Yehuda and Tamar. Rather than openly revealing Yehuda’s involvement in her crime, Tamar made a discrete hint that only Yehuda would understand:
היא מוצאת והיא שלחה אל חמיה לאמר לאיש אשר אלה לו אנכי הרה.
As she was taken out [to be executed], she sent word to her father-in-law saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.”
Had Yehuda ignored her hint, Tamar would surely have been burned to death and no one would have been the wiser. Yet Yehuda confessed and her life was spared. Our Sages learn from Tamar’s example that it is better to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to humiliate another person in public.
Concern for the feelings of others is in fact the very bedrock of our Torah, as Rebbe Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the general rule of the Torah.” For this reason, mitzvos that involve helping other people are far more precious in Heaven than mitzvos between man and G‑d alone.
The importance of being sensitive to other’s feelings, and the sacrifices this often entails, is well illustrated by the story of Rebbe Chanina bar Chama. As Rebbe [Yehuda HaNassi] lay on his deathbed, he appointed R’ Chanina to lead the Yeshiva after his demise. Yet when Rebbe died and the time came for R’ Chanina to assume the mantle of leadership, he refused, since he feared this might offend his peer, Rebbe Appas, who was two and a half years older. R’ Chanina stepped aside, allowing R’ Appas to lead the Yeshiva until his death, after which R’ Chanina finally accepted the position.
Rebbe knew that R’ Appas was older, and no doubt was also sensitive to R’ Appas’ feelings. Nevertheless, he felt that R’ Chanina was better suited for the position. Furthermore, Rebbe had already exhibited his powers of ru’ach hakodesh, and could thus be assumed to have appointed R’ Chanina in accordance with Hashem’s will. Moreover, R’ Chanina’s singular greatness was his unflinching loyalty to Rebbe, such that he never once passed any halachic ruling unless he had heard it directly from Rebbe. R’ Chanina also taught, “Who is destined for the reward of the World to Come? He whose teachers are pleased with him.”
In light of all this, we can understand that R’ Chanina had every incentive in the world to comply with Rebbe’s last wishes, yet he felt himself simply unable to do so at the expense of his friend’s honor. Lest we think that R’ Chanina erred in this decision, the Talmud Yerushalmi relates that when his disciples asked him by what virtue he merited to live to such a venerable old age, he answered that he was granted long life in reward for stepping aside in honor of R’ Appas.
A similar example may be brought from the story of Rava, the preeminent Sage of his era, who merited to have all his halachic debates decided in his favor (with only six exceptions, in which the halacha follows Abaye). Furthermore, when all the yeshivos of his time were forced to close, only his yeshiva in Mechuza remained open.
How did Rava raise to such a towering level of prominence? One might think that this was in the merit of his passionate devotion to Torah study, such that the Gemara describes how he was so absorbed by his Torah study that he did not even notice that his hands were crushed beneath his feet and were dripping blood.
Yet in truth Gemara provides a different incident in his life, in which we see that it was not the blood of his Torah study that led to his greatness, but the blood of his respect for others. The Gemara states that when Rava parted from his mentor, Rav Yosef, he would walk backwards in respect, rather than disrespectfully turning his back on him (even though Rav Yosef was blind and would not have noticed). As he backed out of the room, he crashed into a pillar and stained it with his blood. When Rav Yosef was told what happened he said, “May you be raised to leadership over the entire city,” which Rashi explains to me, “May you be the Rosh Yeshiva of the city,” while Rabbeinu Chananel explains it to mean, “May the halacha always be decided in your favor.” 
What better example do we need than the famous story of Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 disciples whose Talmudic greatness was surely phenomenal, yet they all died within a short period of time for failing to show one another the proper respect. The world was then desolate for lack of Torah wisdom until R’ Akiva ordained a new generation of disciples, including R’ Meir, R’ Yehuda, R’ Yossi, R’ Shimon, R’ Elazar ben Shamoa and R’ Nechemia. 
The severity of their punishment is shocking. Where do we ever find that such terrible death and destruction can descend for no sin other than failing to respect someone’s feelings? Yet the truth is that each person is held accountable to the level of decency that can rightfully be expected of him. For a person without a proper role model of value and virtue, we must expect a certain amount of coarse behavior. However, these were the disciples of R’ Akiva, who taught them throughout their lives, “Man is precious, since he was created in the image of G‑d.” In other words, respect for mankind is a necessary extension of respect for G‑d in Whose image we were created. R’ Akiva also taught them, “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the general rule of the Torah.” Having failed to learn from the teachings and personal example of a Rebbe whose entire message was one of respect and consideration for others, they were held accountable to the highest degree.
Realizing the mistake his first generation of disciples had made, he warned his later disciples: “I had 24,000 disciples, all of whom died for failing to respect one another in their Torah study. Do not repeat their mistake.”
These new disciples formed the backbone of the Oral Tradition of Torah study, such that the Gemara states:
סתם מתניתין ר' מאיר סתם ספרא ר' יהודה סתם ספרי ר' שמעון סתם תוספתא ר' נחמיה וכולהו אליבא דרבי עקיבא.
The unnamed teachings in the Mishna are from R’ Meir; in Sifra from R’ Yehuda; in Sifri from R’ Shimon; in Tosefta from R’ Nechemia, and all of them follow the teachings they received from R’ Akiva.
The entire body of Oral Law that exists in our hands today is the legacy of R’ Akiva, in the merit of his second generation of disciples. They internalized his message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” and developed it, each adding his own insights. R’ Meir taught:
כל המברך את ישראל כאלו מברך את השכינה.
Anyone who blesses his fellow Jew is considered as if he has blessed the Shechinah.
He furthermore exhorted us:
והוי שפל רוח בפני כל אדם.
Be of meek and humble spirit before all people.
R’ Yehuda taught:
שכל מי שמקבל פני חברים כאלו מקבל פני שכינה.
Anyone who greets his friends is considered as if he has greeted the Shechinah.
R’ Yossi ben Chalafta, another member of R’ Akiva’s second generation of disciples, once said of himself:
מימי לא עברתי על דברי חברי יודע אני בעצמי שאיני כהן אם אומרים לי חבירי עלה לדוכן אני עולה.
In all my life, I never once disobeyed my peers. I am not a Kohen, yet if my peers would tell me to ascend the platform [to recite the Priestly Blessing] I would do so.
He also taught:
אפילו לא האיר עיניו אלא במשנה אחת זה הוא רבו.
Even if one’s peer has done no more than explain to him a single Mishna, he must honor him like his rebbe.
R’ Elazar ben Shamoa taught:
יהי כבוד תלמידך חביב עליך כשלך וכבוד חבירך כמורא רבך ומורא רבך כמורא שמים.
Let the honor of your students be as precious as your own; the honor of your peers as the reverence of your teacher; and the reverence of your teacher as the awe of Heaven.
Yet perhaps the most powerfully-worded teaching of all is the message that R’ Shimon bar Yochai gleaned from this week’s parsha:
נוח לו לאדם שיפיל עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים.
It is better to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to embarrass another person in public.
By risking her life to protect the dignity of Yehuda, Tamar left an eternal message of respect and consideration, even for those who are guilty of doing us harm. By showing respect to one another, we show respect to the Creator in Whose image we were formed.
 Bereishis 38:25
 Berachos 43b; Bava Metzia 59a; Sotah 10b
 Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4
 Rosh, Peiah 1:1
 Kesubos 103
 Talmud Yerushalmi: Nidah 2:7
 Shabbos 153a
 Talmud Yerushalmi: Taanis 20b
 Iggeres Rav Sherira Gaon
 Shabbos 88a
 Yoma 53a
 Yevamos 62b
 Pirkei Avos 3:14
 Koheles Rabbah 11
 Sanhedrin 86a
 Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 5
 Pirkei Avos 4:10
 Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:15
 Shabbos 118a
 Bava Metzia 33a
 Avos 4:15