Rabban Yochanan ben (son of) Zakkai received [the transmission] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: If you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself because for this were you created.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lived during the 1st to 2nd Centuries C.E. He was the leader of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans, in approximately the year 70. (The title he bore — “Rabban” (lit., “our rabbi”) as opposed to “Rabbi” — was reserved for the Nasi — the head of the Sanhedrin (high court) and religious leader of Israel.)
As an aside, the position of Nasi was usually held by the descendants of Hillel. During the time of the Roman conquest, however, Rabban Gamliel, Hillel’s great-grandson, assumed a low profile, and the leadership fell into Rabban Yochanan’s hands. After the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, R. Yochanan established a great Torah academy in the city of Yavneh.
Surprisingly, the Talmud (Sukkah 28a) refers to Rabban Yochanan as the smallest of Hillel’s 80 primary students. The Talmud states this more as an indication of the greatness of Hillel’s students rather than of the “smallness” of Rabbi Yochanan. Nevertheless, it affirms a truth we all know to be — that the most gifted student is not always the one most likely to succeed. Brains are only one of the many ingredients required for true leadership — and hardly the primary one. When Moses asked G-d to appoint a leader in his place, he asked that G-d select someone who would be patient with all the members of the nation — in spite of their idiosyncrasies and vastly different personalities. (See Rashi to Numbers 27:16.) Elsewhere, G-d tells Moses to warn the newly-appointed Elders to bear the people even though they are “troublesome” and “difficult” (Rashi to Numbers 11:17). A leader must certainly be wise, but far more importantly he must be broadminded, tolerant of human foibles, and exceedingly patient.
(I once heard R. Berel Wein quoting I believe his father-in-law that to survive, a rabbi must be deaf, blind, and half-of-the-time mute. If you notice everything amiss and speak out against everything unjust, you will never be at peace yourself and no one will be able to put up with you.)
R. Yochanan is perhaps best known for playing a pivotal role in Jewish history. The Talmud (Gittin 56) records the following incident. When the Romans surrounded Jerusalem in the final siege before the destruction of the Second Temple, the city’s inhabitants were divided. The more religious element of the city actually wanted to surrender and hand the city over to the Romans. They realized that doom was imminent. The nation was neither militarily powerful enough nor religiously pious enough to stop the Roman juggernaut. And there was certainly no assurance that the holy Temple in their midst would miraculously protect them if they were not living up to the spiritual standards it demanded. Thus, the Rabbis wanted to sell out to the Romans, to wave the white flag and surrender without a fight — all in the hope of preserving something out of the madness — so that ultimately they could rebuild again.
Yet, the Talmud continues, there were youthful hotheads — as in all times — who were determined to fight to the death. “Never again!” was their slogan. Not one inch! We’d rather die with our honor intact (and they did). (An enclave of this camp was stationed on the mountain fortress of Masada, where the defenders allegedly committed mass suicide rather than submitting to the Romans. (There is actually no direct archaeological evidence of this incident (I believe Josephus records it second-hand) — though it is certainly plausible given the ideology of the defenders. There were certainly other such episodes at that time.) Heroic perhaps, but also desperate. And hardly consistent with the Jewish commitment to preserve life above practically all else in order to rebuild G-d’s nation for the future.) This militant camp, during the Jerusalem siege, destroyed the city’s entire supply of food — which was substantial — in order to force the Jews to desperate defense.
At this point, the Rabbis acted. R. Yochanan, in a move to secure some kind of terms for the Jews, had himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin and was brought before the Roman general Vespasian. In greeting the general, R. Yochanan referred to him as emperor of Rome. (He deduced from Scriptural verses that the Temple would be destroyed only by a king.) His prophetic prediction was immediately fulfilled when messengers arrived to inform Vespasian that the Roman Senate had declared him emperor.
As a result of his appointment and in recognition of R. Yochanan’s great wisdom (the Talmud records a lengthier discussion between the two men), Vespasian granted R. Yochanan any favors he would ask. The most famous of his three requests, which ensured R. Yochanan’s immortality, was: “Give me Yavneh and its Sages.” Jerusalem is finished. We cannot turn back the inexorable gears of history. Yet let us plant Torah elsewhere. The Children of Israel can continue without the Temple and even without its precious Land — so long as Torah is being studied and observed. For a Jew is a Jew without his might, without his independence, and even without his Land — but not without his Torah.
R. Yochanan is viewed in our eyes as a hero. He took what was most certainly the less popular stance in his time. He willingly surrendered Jerusalem to the enemy, asking only to allow a Torah academy to continue elsewhere. Certainly the more heroic stance, the one which would have captured the imagination and rallied the populace, would have been to stand firm and to fight it out till the bitter end. We still visit Masada today with a sense of awe and wonder at people courageous enough to take their own lives for their cause.
Even among the scholars of his time R. Yochanan did not enjoy unanimous support. Giving up Jerusalem was unimaginable to many. Abandon the spiritual and religious center of Judaism — the holiest place on earth — without a fight?! How could we? Maybe we should go down with the ship. If G-d saw fit to destroy the Temple we have nothing left. Is there any reason or interest in moving on and rebuilding? Does anyone think of looking ahead beyond Armageddon?
R. Yochanan saw events differently. He recognized that in the broad scope of history the Jewish people were in decline. The destruction of the Temple was but one step along a much longer and bitterer path of exile and hardship. Israel was to leave the security of its Land, to take up residence among contemptuous and inhospitable nonbelievers. We would now be homeless and wandering Jews — living in an exile which would last till this very day.
Yet, realized the rabbi, through the establishment of Torah centers we would retrench, regroup and eventually triumph. But he took a gamble — a gamble for a brighter future. He took it into his own hands to give up Jerusalem — a move that only a giant in Torah and leadership could have even imagined… and he succeeded. The Torah was preserved — and Israel as a separate, distinct and divine nation survives till this very day.
(The remark has been made that in spite of the much-vaunted might and valor of the Roman Empire, they’ve long been consigned to the ash-heap of ancient history, while we, the Jewish people, are alive and kicking, even meriting to again live in our Holy Land. As R. Wein more pointedly put it, who’s charging who today to come visit a whole lot of Roman ruins on our soil?) 🙂
In spite of it all, R. Yochanan was plagued with doubts for the rest of his life. The Talmud records that on his deathbed, he tearfully told his students that he has two paths before him — to Heaven and to Hell — and he was literally unsure along which one he would be led (Brachos 28b). He took it upon himself to change the course of Jewish history, and to his dying moments was never truly sure he had chosen right. (I heard this explanation of the Talmud from R. Berel Wein.)
At last we arrive at R. Yochanan’s advice in our mishna — and this for me personally is the most inspiring part of all. What are R. Yochanan’s chief words of advice for us, his most profound message for posterity? “If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself because for this were you created.” Did he consider himself a hero? Had he done something extra, something above and beyond the call of duty? Had he done more than G-d asked of him? No, he had simply done his job. Don’t carry yourself about as some special gift to mankind just because you are talented or you’re doing something useful for the world. I am literally struck speechless at the magnitude of this man’s heroism and the difference he single-handedly made to the future of Israel. Do we have leaders today who are strong enough and courageous enough to take on the world, to take the unpopular path for they know it is right? Such people are one a generation — if a generation is so fortunate.
And yet not only was R. Yochanan ben Zakkai such a person, but he saw himself as an ordinary human being all the same, a simple servant of his Master. He saw clearly not only G-d’s hand in world history, but his own status vis-a-vis his Creator. And this is both the attitude he carried with him and the message he bears for us today.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.