The teacher-student relationship is a foundational facet of transmitting the tradition from one generation to the next. The respect demanded for a teacher is unparalleled, and a common benchmark for the caliber of teachers is their students. It is therefore unsurprising that a sick teacher is a grave concern for students, who may begin to contemplate life without the guidance of their master. The Talmud records the parting legacy offered by ailing teachers when their students call.
When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his students came to visit him (B. Berachot 28b). As he saw them enter, he immediately began to weep.
The disciples, trying to understand the tears they beheld, turned to their ailing teacher: "Light of Israel, sturdy pillar, mighty hammer, why do you weep?" Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai replied: "If they were leading me before a ruler of flesh and blood - who today is here and tomorrow is in the grave; who, if he becomes angry with me his anger is not everlasting and if he imprisons me his imprisonment is not everlasting, and if he puts me to death this death is not an everlasting death; and I am able to appease him with words and to bribe him with money - even so I would sob.
"Now that they are leading me before the king who reigns over all kings, the Holy One blessed be He; who lives and endures forever and ever; who, if He becomes angry with me, His anger is everlasting, and if He imprisons me, His imprisonment is everlasting, and if He puts me to death, this death is an everlasting death as He can destroy me in the world to come; and I am unable to appease Him with words nor to bribe Him with money; and moreover two paths lie before me, one of the Garden of Eden and one of hell, and I know not along which path they will lead me... and should I not weep!"
Not knowing what the future held and realizing the gravity of the path he was about to enter, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was moved to tears. Perhaps sensing the end was nigh, the students begged their teacher: "Our master, bless us." Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai offered them a parting blessing: "May it be the will of God that the fear of heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood."
The students were startled: "Thus far and no more?!" The disciples wondered - should our fear of the Almighty not surpass the fear of mere mortals? Surely we should fear God more than we fear humans!
"If only it would be so!" replied the sage. "Know, that when people commit crimes, they say: 'O that a person not see me!'" It is a sad fact that people are more concerned with what others will think than with what the Almighty will perceive.
Returning to the beginning of the tale, we can ask: Why did Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai begin to sob only once the students had entered? The reason for his cry - the hazy future that lay before him in the next world - should have precipitated tears even before the disciples entered? Why was the students' entry a catalyst for tears?
One of the well-known Jewish ethicists of the 20th century, Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970, Lithuania-Israel) explained that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai knew that he was not sullied by sin. Such a leader who saved Torah Judaism on the eve of the fall of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period could be confident of his achievements. But when considering his many students, he could not ascertain that they carried no vices and were innocent of all misdeeds. Lest he did not do enough to educate his charges, to instill in them the fear of heaven; perhaps he should have commented more, offered more sage advice. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai shuddered at the thought. Thus his tears came, only once his disciples entered.
One of the great educators who was killed in the Holocaust, the hassidic master Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943), offered an insightful explanation of this talmudic tale. His approach is similar to that of Rabbi Lopian in that it also speaks to the student-teacher relationship. The Piaseczno Rebbe, however, differs on a salient point, presenting a significantly different approach.
He begins by turning to another talmudic passage in which our sages instruct that an educator should not teach a student who is not of worthy character (B. Makot 10a). Why - asks the Piaseczno Rebbe - should educators refrain from teaching unworthy pupils? Surely the students' dire situation can only be improved by caring instruction? If the pupil is doomed, the teacher can do no harm by offering guidance.
Citing a further talmudic passage (B. Yoma 87a), the Piaseczno Rebbe suggests that we are concerned that the teacher and the pupil should not be separated in the afterlife: one meriting heaven and the other sent to hell. For student and teacher are linked in an inseparable bond, the fate of their souls is one. If one is deserving of heaven, the other perforce merits; if one is sent to hell, the other must suffer too. Thus is the nature of their reciprocal bond.
While Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was undoubtedly of grand stature, his modest manner led him to wonder about his own future. This pondering turned to tears when his students appeared before him: "If my destiny is to be dispatched to hell, so be it. But my righteous students, they too will suffer if my lot is not to merit heaven," wept the ailing sage.
More than our aphorisms, more than the edifices we built, the bequest we leave behind in this world are those of the next generation that we have raised, whether it is our children or our disciples. Those whom we have taught reflect what we have contributed, and by looking at our students we can see our legacy.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.