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Story of The Churban - Part 4
Part 4: Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai's Daring Gamble
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the dean of the Sanhedrin, was the leader of the Jews in that era. He countered every attempt of the Tzadokim to change the halacha. One day, as he was walking on the streets of Yerushalayim, he saw a group of Jews sitting around a boiling pot of straw. They each took turns sipping the water with the greatest of pleasure. R' Yochanan ben Zakkai felt brokenhearted from the pain of seeing the nation of Yisrael reduced to actually taking pleasure from the food of animals.
He decided to attempt to ease the suffering of his people. He sent a message to his nephew, Abba Sikarah, one of the generals of the Zealots, to meet him clandestinely. R' Yochanan ben Zakkai asked him, "How long are you going to let the people die from starvation? If we surrender to Rome, we may be able to save Yisrael, Yerushalayim, and the Bais Hamikdash. Abba Sikarah replied, "Your words may be true, but there is nothing I can do to change things without being killed by my peers."
R' Yochanan ben Zakkai begged his nephew to think of a way he could leave the city and meet the Roman general Vespasian. Abba Sikarah instructed his uncle to pretend he was ill and on the verge of death. He should then instruct his students to announce that he had died. The Zealots allowed the city gates to be opened for the dead, and his students would carry him out.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai did as his nephew advised him, and his two students, R' Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, carried a casket with their teacher in it to a burial vault outside the city. The students returned to the city, and when night fell, R' Yochanan ben Zakkai searched for the Roman camp.
When he encountered Vespasian, he said, "Peace upon you, Emperor, peace unto you." Vespasian replied, "You deserve to be killed for two reasons. First of all, you addressed me as the Emperor, which I am not, and secondly, if you think I'm the Emperor, why didn't you come earlier?" Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai answered, "You are the Emperor because if you weren't, Yerushalayim would not fall into your hands. It is written, "Levanon will fall through a mighty one" (Yeshaya 10:34). Mighty one is a reference to a king and Levanon is a reference to the Bais Hamikdash. Regarding your second question, I did not come earlier because the Zealots did not allow me to leave."
While they were still speaking, a messenger arrived from Rome to announce that the Emperor had died and Vespasian had been appointed in his place. Vespasian was astounded by R' Yochanan's ben Zakkai's foresight and decided to grant him three requests.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's first request was "Give me Yavneh and its Sages." This request was vital to insure that the study of Torah would not cease. The future of Bnei Yisrael could not be guaranteed without the continuing study of the Torah.
His second request was that the family of Rabban Gamliel be saved from harm. This would insure that the royal line of the descendants of Dovid Hamelech would continue.
His third request was that a doctor be sent to cure R' Tzadok, the Gadol Hador. R' Tzadok had davened and fasted for forty years over the impending Churban, and was close to death.
Vespasian granted these three requests. He then left for Rome to assume his new position as Emperor. His son Titus took over the command of the army troops in Judea.
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