Thank you for joining us for the second lesson of Portraits in Leadership: Timeless Tales for Inspired Living. After concluding with Hillel last week, this week’s lesson focused on Hillel’s most junior student. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was identified as the student most able to faithfully transmit his teachings to future generations.
Rabban Yochanan lived in Arav for eighteen years where there was little appreciation for Torah study. He nevertheless remained at his post until he was needed in Jerusalem to serve as a teacher after the passing of many of Hillel’s senior students. He was also instrumental in refuting the Sadducee teachings that threatened to undermine the oral tradition. Rabban Yochanan sought to maintain an aura of relative calm and stability for as long as possible, although he knew that the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was inevitable.
Factionalism threatened to tear apart the people, as the wealthy tried to curry favor with the Romans, the Zealots tried to force a revolt, and the moderates tried to salvage what they could by pushing for their interests without rebelling against Roman leaders. Rabban Yochanan, with the assistance of his nephew, head of the Zealots, snuck out of the city to negotiate with the Romans. Though he was able to secure Yavneh as a center of Torah learning, many were critical that he did not try to save the Beit HaMikdash. He felt that a request of that magnitude would jeopardize his ability to salvage anything at all. After the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the center of Torah moved to Yavneh.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai stood at the helm of the yeshivah in Yavneh and attracted the greatest minds of the generation. Though Rabban Yochanan had arranged for the safety of Rabban Gamliel and his family, it was still too early for Rabban Gamliel to emerge and take a public role. After two long years, Rabban Gamliel felt safe enough to come to Yavneh and assumed his natural position as nasi.
At this point, Rabban Yochanan relocated to Beror Chayil, a small town in the Negev, in order to allow Rabban Gamliel to establish his authority. Rabban Yochanan continued to visit Yavneh in the role of av bet din. On his deathbed, he expressed doubt about his portion in the world to come. This signifies that Rabban Yochanan totally dedicated himself to the mission at hand, without ever having the luxury of self-reflection.
Thank you again for joining us for this class, and next week, we will continue with our next portrait, Rabbi Eliezer. I look forward to seeing you.