World of the Sages: The marks we leave

As we walk the paths of our lives, we ask ourselves: Have our ancestors been here before?

During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the famed rabbinic leader Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (c. 30 BCE-90 CE) escaped the walls of the city and met the Roman military commander Vespasian. At this meeting Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai made three modest requests, one of which was the preservation of the city of Yavne and its scholars. Vespasian granted his requests and the center of Torah moved from Jerusalem to Yavne, saving it from the destruction that would befall the capital city (B. Gittin 56b). This center later moved from Yavne to Usha in the north. Under the leadership of Rabban Gamliel II, the Sanhedrin returned from Usha to Yavne. At that time, scholars came from around the country to study together, to delve into the texts of our Tradition and to debate matters of Jewish law. It was in these circumstances that the sages Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Nehemia and Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose Haglili arrived in Yavne (B. Brachot 63b). The place of study in Yavne was referred to as Kerem Beyavne, the vineyard of Yavne, for the sages would seat in rows much like the rows in vineyard (Y. Berakhot 4d). The seating arrangement was a noticeable deviation from the well-known official custom of sitting in a semicircle, a practice that had been in effect when the Sanhedrin convened in Jerusalem. According to one opinion, the change was adopted in an attempt to avoid attracting the attention of the Roman authorities, who would not be kindly disposed to the reconstitution of the highest Jewish legal body (Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevy, 19th century, Europe). To recall, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was granted permission to rescue the sages, presumably with the goal of Torah study; reestablishing an institution of Jewish authority was never discussed, and quite likely would have been met with Roman antagonism. The seating arrangement was therefore a form of camouflage designated by the code name "the vineyard of Yavne." Alternatively, the change in the seating arrangement was an acknowledgement that while the legislative body continued to operate, it was nevertheless in exile from its true seat in Jerusalem. Indeed the move to Yavne is described by the Talmud as an exile (B. Rosh Hashana 31a-b). As one commentator explained, the comparison to a vineyard need not be limited to the seating arrangements (Rabbi Yisrael Lipschuetz, 19th century, Germany): The Talmud compares Torah scholars to grapes (B. Hullin 92a) and the Torah they study to wine (B. Ta'anit 7a-b; see also B. Brachot 57a expounding Proverbs 9:5). The place of study where the grapes - that is, the Torah scholars - are cultivated is called "the vineyard," and the product, the wine of Torah, indeed gladdened the heart as wine does (see Psalms 104:15). With the sages gathered in the vineyard of Yavne, proceedings were set to begin, and each visiting sage was invited to make an opening presentation. The opening discourses all began with the same theme: Words in honor of the hosts. Who were the hosts and why did the sages begins with words in their honor? The most apparent explanation is that the hosts were the householders of Yavne who graciously opened their homes to the visiting scholars. In recognition of this hospitality, the sages began with discourses in praise of those who host scholars and thus facilitate Torah study (Rashi, 11th century, France). One contemporary commentator referenced the rabbinic maxim that without respect and decency there can be no Torah. Thus before embarking on an in-depth discussion of Jewish law, the sages appropriately expressed their gratitude to their hosts (Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel referring to M. Avot 3:17). Hassidic tradition offers a different explanation for the recognition that visitors should give, focusing less on the individual hosts and more on the location as a site that hosts. Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov (c. 1700-1760, Poland) is credited with saying that when a Jew fulfills a mitzva, he or she leaves an enduring mark of sanctity on the location where the deed was performed. That place then becomes a location that is fortunate to have a predisposition for good deeds. This follows the adage of our sages that one mitzva encourages another (M. Avot 4:2). Alas, the opposite is also true: A location that has been used for negative purposes retains a susceptibility that further transgressions will be committed there. Just as one mitzva encourages another, so too one transgression may lead to another. When the sages entered the vineyard of Yavne they were immediately struck by the uniqueness of the site that was hosting the Torah study. The mark left by predecessors was palpable and the surrounding holiness was tangible. Perhaps indicative of this spirit was the oft-repeated lesson - a motto of sorts - of the sages of Yavne, who acknowledged different pursuits in life "as long as each person directs his heart toward heaven" (B. Brachot 17a). The visiting sages could thus sense that Torah had been studied here before, that this vineyard was a place of Torah study, a location dedicated to the preservation of our tradition. In this vein each sage rose to praise the hosting location that broadcast, in a clear timbre, the continuity of our heritage. As we walk the paths of our lives, we ask ourselves: Have our ancestors been here before? At times this question may be geographic: In our generation we are fortunate to walk the streets of Israel and we can marvel as we walk in the footsteps of our biblical ancestors. Other times, the question is far less tangible: Are we continuing the paths and legacies of our forebears? One day our children will ask this very same question: Are they walking the time honored and worn paths that their parents - that we - traversed? We leave an indelible mark at each place we visit. Those marks - whether they are visible and physical or whether they are spiritual and unseen but perceived - are the legacy that we leave for future generations. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.