Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was the leading sage at the time of the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple. As the Jews and Romans were struggling for control of the Holy City, he managed to escape from the capital and engage the Roman commander Vespasian in a conversation which would have lasting effects for the Jewish people.
Having found favor in the general’s eyes, Rabban Johanan asked for three things. “Give me Jabneh and its wise men, the family chain of Rabban Gamliel, and physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok.” (Gittin 56a)
Let us explore each of these appeals a bit further.
- Jabneh and its wise men – to preserve the Torah, the academy in Jabneh had to be spared.
- The family chain of Rabban Gamliel – the princes offered strong leadership for this tumultuous time, vital for national survival.
- Physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok – who had fasted for years to avert the destruction.
Many of Rabban Johanan’s contemporaries opposed his moving of the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem. Still, Rabban Johanan persisted. He understood that the most important decisions in history can also often be the more difficult and pursued his convictions despite the consequences.
Once at Jabneh, Rabban Johanan passed numerous legislations designed to preserve the legacy of the Temple for subsequent generations, so as to keep the connection alive long into the exile period. These became known as “zecher l’mikdash”. In addition to these legislations, a number of decrees were passed to ensure that the Jewish people would continuously remember the loss of the Temple. These became known as “zecher l’churban.”
We can learn much from the actions of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai:
- See beyond the moment – He demonstrated that no matter how bleak the present looks, there is always tomorrow. Not only will the sun rise again on a new day, but we must plan for that eventuality to ensure an optimal outcome.
- Have faith in your convictions – It was easy for Rabban Johanan to stay put in Jerusalem and passively await his fate. Instead, he courageously orchestrated a risky plan to gain an audience with Vespasian. Later, he chose to pursue his minority agenda of relocating to Jabneh despite opposition from his peers.
- Hold on to the positive – Particularly in times of challenge, it is important to remember and draw inspiration from better days. By connecting to the mikdash, Rabban Johanan sought to keep his nation focused on our days of glory and offer us something to aspire towards.
- Remember what you are missing – Complacency can easily set in when we are satisfied with the status quo. Abstaining from full expressions of joy help to remind us that things are far from perfect and that we have to work diligently to better our situation.
Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai offered strong, focused leadership at one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history. Hopefully, we can apply many of the lessons that our great leader taught us in order to live more fulfilling, focused and growth-oriented lives.