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As Vital as Oxygen: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:9

As Vital as Oxygen: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:9

What was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai thinking?


"Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the transmission of Torah] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: If you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself, because it was for this that you were created." -- Ethics of the Fathers, 2:9

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai served as leader of the Jewish people during its most tumultuous period in the last 2,000 years. During his days, the cultural influences of Greece and Rome had so corrupted Jewish society that the salient feature of his time was sinat chinom -- senseless hatred between one Jew and another. The acrimony and divisiveness between Jews created both spiritual instability and political upheaval that combined to bring about the destruction of the Second Temple, the deaths of millions of Jews, and the explosion of the Great Diaspora.

As the Roman's began their siege of Jerusalem in the year 66, three wealthy men donated enough flour, oil, and firewood to enable the populace of the city to hold out against the Roman legions for 12 years. But Jewish zealots, convinced that only a Jewish assault upon the Roman forces would prove the Jews' trust in the Almighty and thereby win His divine aid, burned the supplies in hope of spurring the people to confront their enemies on the battlefield. When they saw that instead of taking up arms the people sought to surrender to the Romans, the zealots placed guards by all the city gates barring exit for any reason except burial of the dead.

Instead of withstanding the siege, the people of Jerusalem began to starve.

Recognizing that as long as Jew was pitted against Jew the nation would remain undeserving of divine intervention, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai arranged to slip past the zealot guards who manned the gates. Disguising their rabbi in burial shrouds, Rabban Yochanan's students succeeded in deceiving the guards so that Rabban Yochanan could escape from Jerusalem. Once past the city walls, the sage presented himself to the Roman general Vespasian.

"Hail, Emperor," Rabban Yochanan declared as he came into the presence of the general.

Vespasian was furious. "I should have you killed," he said, "for mocking me and for calling anyone other than Caesar by his title."

Rabban Yochanan answered: "You will become emperor since if you were not a king, Jerusalem would not fall into your hands; for it is written: And the Lebanon will fall through a mighty one (Isaiah 10:34). Mighty one refers to a king, and Lebanon refers to the Beis HaMikdash."

As he finished speaking, messengers arrived informing Vespasian that the emperor had died and that the Roman senate had proclaimed him Caesar. Vespasian was so impressed by Rabban Yochanan's insight that he offered to fulfill three requests.

"Give me Yavneh and its sages," asked Rabban Yochanan. He also requested special protection for the family of the sage Rabban Gamliel, and a doctor for Rabbi Tzaddok, who had been fasting daily for the sins of his generation and had grown dangerously weak and frail.

Imagine Vespasian's surprise at Rabban Yochanan's requests. Vespasian must have imagined that the sage would ask as the general himself would have had their positions been reversed -- for his own wealth, his own protection, and his own power. Surely this aged rabbi was no longer in full possession of his faculties, asking for an insignificant school, an unknown family and, of all things, a physician!

Indeed, the Talmud inquires why Rabban Yochanan did not ask that Vespasian spare Jerusalem. But Rabban Yochanan understood that asking for too much might gain him nothing in the end: to arouse Vespasian's suspicion the Rabban Yochanan harbored some secret plan might deeply jeopardize the future of the Jewish nation.

And so Rabban Yochanan asked for Yavneh, a yeshiva in an obscure village to be sure, but one sufficiently distant from the centers of Roman authority for the sages to seek refuge and rebuild Torah for the next generations. It was Rabban Yochanan's foresight that preserved the Torah, establishing new foundations so that Torah could become great once again.

His request for Rabban Gamliel's protection was also subtle but equally important. One of the last surviving descendants of King David, Rabban Gamliel was not only an indispensable support in the Torah leadership but also an inspiring symbol to the people that hope remained for the ultimate messianic redemption. Although Rabban Gamliel had withdrawn largely from public life for the sake of his own safety, he would continue to need special protection from the unpredictable violence of the zealots.

Rabban Yochanan's final request may have been his most ingenious. For while the health of Rabbi Tzaddok was certainly a priceless commodity for the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people, the request for a doctor must have appeared so ludicrous in the eyes of Vespasian that he dismissed the notion that the old rabbi who stood before him could possibly be asking for anything of great significance.

Do we pat ourselves on the back when we breathe? Do we heap accolades upon ourselves for eating and sleeping?

And so, before departing for Rome, Vespasian casually and carelessly granted Rabban Yochanan's requests, thereby assuring the survival of the Jewish people through the preservation of Torah.

It was before this historical backdrop that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai taught his eternal lesson: If you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself because it was for this that you were created.

Do we pat ourselves on the back when we breathe? Do we heap accolades upon ourselves for eating and sleeping? The study of Torah unlocks for us the secrets of the universe, opens before us the corridors of divine power, and admits us to the banquet hall of ultimate spiritual beauty and pleasure. For having the good sense to take advantage of the Almighty's ultimate gift to us must we shower ourselves with praise?

The tragedies of the Second Temple period derived from a failure among the Jewish people to recognize that Torah study is not an inconvenience and that Torah observance is not a burden. Commitment to Torah is as imperative as breathing and as natural as eating and sleeping. It is not merely a religious discipline but a way of life, guiding us in the refinement of character and teaching us how to live in harmony in the pursuit of spiritual goals. When we let it, Torah binds us together as a people and ensures our material and spiritual success.

But only when we let it. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai made it possible for Torah and the Jewish people to survive. But he took every opportunity to remind his generation not to take credit for their accomplishments in Torah, but to recognize that Torah only guarantees our survival when we appreciate that it is as essential, as vital, as fundamental to our spiritual well-being as are the most elemental physical necessities to life itself.

June 11, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Ron Kean, June 15, 2005 12:00 AM


While it is true that Jews should show compassion and help others, the emphasis on ecumenical, medical, and overall societal concerns that a large portion of Jewry spends a lot of time on may not help us. The example of Reb Yohannan shows that our survival really depends on learning Tenach and the Oral Law. Teaching the above with commentaries has allowed Judaism to continue to exist. Denying Jewish children this knowledge, their inheritance, leads to assimilation and to many families, the end of the Jewish way. The question is, how do Jews replace a largely secular, materialistic, and politically correct agenda with a more Torah centered one?

(1) Anonymous, June 12, 2005 12:00 AM

A lesson for our times.

Would that the Jewish zealots of our day learn from the lesson of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

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