There is an intrinsic difference between the natural state of klal Yisrael and the nations of the world. There is no real concept of achdus (unity) between one gentile and the next. Whatever “achdus” they possess is not intrinsically part of their makeup; it is superficial and self-serving. The achdus of klal Yisrael, however, is a reality. It is part and parcel of the Jewish people.
The s’farim ha’k’doshim explain that there is a spiritual connection between all the souls of klal Yisrael and we are, in essence, one big nefesh – one big soul. Based on this, says Rav Shlomo Ganzfried zt”l in Sefer Aperion, we can understand why the plague of tzaraas does not affect the other nations of the world. Lashon ha’ra, evil speech, which causes separation and strife, can only damage am Yisrael, whose integral make-up is achdus and togetherness. Through it, damage is done to their natural state. The nations of the world, however, are not intrinsically bound to one another, and they are not spiritually affected by lashon ha’ra. No damage is done to them, and they remain in the same state as they were before.
Unity among his disciples was paramount to the holy Ari HaKadosh, Rabbeinu Yitzchak Luria zt”l. It was imperative that there be a genuine spirit of love between them. He would teach them, “Every morning before prayer, be sure to consciously fulfill the commandment of ‘Love your friend as yourself.’ Meditate with the aim of engendering within yourself a genuine love for every Jew that matches your love for yourself. This kavanah will enable your prayers to ascend unhindered and produce the proper effect in heaven. It is truly essential that my chaveirim (my companions),” as he called his disciples, “fulfill this commandment to the extent that they bind themselves together, each one becoming a limb of a united body. Should one of them be suffering or a member of his family be ill, all the other chaveirim should empathize with him and pray wholeheartedly for his recovery.” Of course, this comradeship applied to their families, as well.
In the spring of 1572, a horrific plague struck the Galilee, the upper region of the Land of Israel, including the city of Tz’fas, where the Arizal and his talmidim resided. It was an awful epidemic – as most were in those days – and men, women, and children were not spared from the clutches of the Angel of Death. Obviously, the surest means of protection was to remain indoors as much as possible; however, people had to eat and commerce needed to continue. In order not to disrupt the lives of his disciples, Rabbeinu Yitzchak found a large courtyard with an appropriate number of rooms in which his disciples and their families could live together. The invisible menace of the plague stalked the Galilee for months, but as long as the Arizal and his talmidim remained unified in the courtyard, they were unhindered by the effects of the plague.
Finally, after five months living in tight quarters and close proximity, a quarrel broke out between two wives on the eve of Shabbos. It started out as a minor quarrel, but soon even their husbands became involved, and the argument worsened. When the sun set and Shabbos arrived, the disciples went out to receive the Shabbos in the fields with their mentor, as was their custom. But the moment they returned to shul for Maariv, they noticed the Arizal sitting in his place with a frown on his face.
The men were concerned, but none felt brave enough to confront their Rebbe. Finally, Rabbeinu Chaim Vital zt”l, the oldest and foremost disciple, stood up and approached the Arizal. He was very concerned, for he had never seen his mentor cloaked in mourning at this time. The Arizal always taught that Shabbos is a spiritual delight, when all grief and worry disappear. “Our master,” said Rabbeinu Chaim with trepidation in his voice, “Why is the Rebbe so sad?”
The Arizal responded in a hushed tone. “When we went to receive the Shabbos, I saw the Mal’ach HaMaves, the Angel of Death. He quoted me the pasuk in Sefer Shmuel (I Shmuel 12:25): ‘Gam atem, gam malkechem tisafu–Both you and your king shall be swept away.’ I realized that the decree of death had already been pronounced against me and some of my disciples.”
Rabbeinu Chaim Vital and some other talmidim began to protest, but the Arizal continued. “The final stamp,” he said as he looked at his disciples, “was sealed today when some of the chaveirim quarreled. So long as there was shalom – peace and unity – among you, there was no gateway through which the negative powers could enter and endanger us. But now, it is too late.”
Shortly thereafter, on the first day of Av, the holy Arizal was stricken by the epidemic, and five days later he passed away. Five disciples also lost their lives.