The youngest disciple of the exalted Rabbi Hillel (he of the “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” fame), Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was the leading sage in the final decade of the Second Temple period. As Rome’s persecutions of the Jews intensified, and as the Jewish zealots undertook the Great Revolt, Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was among the few and lonely voices urging the Jews of Jerusalem to seek peace with Rome. (His position was all the more poignant as one of his own nephews served as a leader of the zealot rebels.) Fearing – correctly – that the Great Revolt would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and her singular Jewish institutions, Raban Yochanan ben Zakai arranged to be hidden in a coffin and smuggled out of the city walls; once outside Jerusalem, he sought a meeting with the Roman general Vespasian and predicted – also correctly – that Vespasian would vanquish the Judean armies and become the emperor of Rome. Flattered, Vespasian granted Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s request to found an academy of Jewish learning in Yavne; after Jerusalem was razed in the year 70 C.E., Raban Yochanan ben Zakai re-established the Sanhedrin there and made Yavne the new center of Jewish life in Palestine.
The story is already good enough – the coffin, the smuggling, the successful audience with an enemy general – but its significance goes much deeper than plot. Not to be overly dramatic, but Raban Yochanan ben Zakai is pretty much responsible for the fact that you are reading this. That there is still Judaism. That there are still Jews.
Not only did Raban Yochanan ben Zakai ensure the continuity of Jewish learning and Jewish leadership with this drastic move – he also ensured the continuity of Judaism itself. Under his authority came the ruling that – with the destruction of the Temple – God could be worshipped through prayer rather than sacrifice. Under his authority, essential rituals – from the waving of the lulav at Sukkot to the sounding of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah – were reinterpreted so Jews could continue to perform them even when the Temple no longer stood. Under his authority, definitive judgments went forth from a place other than Jerusalem. Under his authority, Judaism survived what might have been – what her enemies had hoped would be – a fatal blow. Under his authority, nearly two millennia later, we are Jews today.
As we might expect, Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was known for living in the here and now, for making the best of our existing circumstances rather than relying on a deliverance that may not arrive in time. Among his most famous statements is this admonition: “If you are holding a sapling in your hand, and someone announces that the Messiah has come – first, plant the sapling. Then go greet the Messiah.” Although it’s popular to interpret this teaching as emphasizing the importance of trees and the environment, it was actually intended as a rebuke to those who would overlook their responsibilities in this world in favor of messianic yearning. It’s not a bad message to hear today.
And yet. Even Raban Yochanan ben Zakai longed for something more. On his deathbed, he instructed his students to remove the vessels from his home, lest they become ritually impure through contact with the dead. But before his disciples could follow what they thought was his final order, before they could leave the side of their master, before they could share with their own disciples that Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was – to the very end – practical and direct and concerned solely with the life and the details of this world, he said something else.
He said this: “Prepare a throne for Hezekiah, King of Judah, who is coming.” And “Hezekiah, King of Judah” was, at that time, a name for the Messiah.
So, for the sake of Raban Yochanan ben Zakai, take care of your responsibilities in this world. Plant the sapling. Remove the vessels. But, please, don’t forget to hope for redemption.