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Friday, 28 July, 2017 - 12:10 pm


A large corporation hired a new CEO. Before leaving, the former CEO met the new hire privately in his office and gave him three numbered envelopes.

“Open these if you have a problem you don’t think you can solve,” he said.

Things were pretty smooth the first six months, but then sales took a downturn and the new CEO began to catch a lot of heat. He took the first envelope from his drawer. The message read, “Blame your predecessor.”

The new CEO called a press conference and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CEO. Sales began to pick up and the problem was soon behind him.

About a year later, the company was again experiencing a slight dip in sales, combined with serious product malfunctions. Having learned from his previous experience, the CEO opened the second envelope. The message read, “Reorganize.” This he did, and the company quickly rebounded.

After several consecutive profitable quarters, the company once again fell on hard times. The CEO went to his office and opened the third envelope.

The message said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

This coming week we mourn the destruction of the two holy Temples in Jerusalem. The Talmud relates a story about a special man who had to make an instantaneous decision for which he was sorely rebuked. However, the end results are incredible:

In the year 70 BCE, Rome sent hundreds of thousands of troops to destroy Israel, burn the Holy Temple, massacre the Jews, crush Jewish political independence, and put an end to the existence of the Jewish people as a distinct, sovereign nation. No more would the Jewish people live in their own land, under their own government. After years of intense battles, Vespasian, who would soon become the new Roman emperor, had successfully besieged Jerusalem. The city had fallen, people were dying in the streets, there was nothing to eat, and complete despair had overtaken the Jewish community. At any moment the city would be conquered by the Roman legions and the Temple would be destroyed. The situation was hopeless.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the prominent Jewish authority of the time, wanted to meet Vespasian. There was one problem, however: the Jewish zealots craved war with Rome, and would not allow any Jew to go and meet the Romans. Luckily, the head of the zealots, Aba Sikra, was Rabbi Yochanan's nephew. He suggested to his uncle that he declare himself ill. After a few days, news would spread that he had died. His disciples would then smuggle him in a coffin out of the besieged city of Jerusalem to be buried outside of the city (since according to Jewish law, you don't bury a corpse in Jerusalem.) Once outside, he would be able to meet Vespasian.

And so it was: Rabbi Yochanan met Vespasian. During their conversation, the Jewish sage made such a powerful impression on the Roman general that he agreed to fulfill any wish the rabbi asked.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had to make a decision—right then and there.

Reflect for a moment: If you were representing an entire nation which was about to be destroyed, and you were granted permission by the mighty conqueror to ask for one thing, what would that thing be?

Remember, at such as moment, you can’t call your local rabbi, and ask what does the Torah say about this? There are no easy black-and-white answers for such questions. You can’t be passive. You need to make a decision—and the responsibility is all yours.

Rabbi Yochanan requested of Vespasian: Give me Yavneh and its students.

The city of Yavneh was the home of the central Jewish educational institutions at the time. It was the place to which Jewish students would flock when they wanted to learn Torah, to discover the moral vision of Judaism—its laws, traditions, spirituality and theology. Yavneh was the center of Jewish study at the time, and the rabbi asked Vespasian to spare Yavneh and its schools, to spare the Jewish houses of learning.

Vespasian fulfilled his request. He went on to plunder Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and cut down Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Only the schools in Yavneh were spared from the Roman merciless sword.

We can imagine how much flack Rabbi Yochanan received. The Talmud records how other great rabbis scorned Rabbi Yochanan's choice. He could have asked for Jerusalem, for the Holy Temple to be spared! He could have asked to allow the Jewish people to have their own government, to maintain some political power! Instead, what did he ask for? That the houses of Jewish learning not be destroyed? How parochial can a leader be?

Years later, as Rabbi Yochanan lay on his deathbed, he looked back at his life, and he could not rest. He felt profound guilt and shame. "Did I betray my people at their most vulnerable hour?" he asked himself. "Did I betray my country and all of Jewish history? Perhaps if I had asked him to spare the government, he would have agreed, and we would have our own land?

"Am I single-handedly responsible for the tragic ending of Jewish existence as an independent nation in our homeland? Maybe I belong in hell!" he cried.

His students could not console him. They were also plagued by this question. Had their teacher not made a great, maybe the greatest, historical error?

He and his students did not know the answer to this question, they COULD not know. They were living through the terrible period of the destruction of the second commonwealth and the beginning of a 2,000-year long exile. They could not know the historical implications of Rabbi Yochanan's decision.

But—who are living exactly 1,947 years later—are capable of knowing. We can judge Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai's decision two millennia ago. We can give the verdict of whether Rabbi Yochanan's place is in paradise or hell.

In Rome, there is an arch called the Arch of Titus. It was built in the year 70 BCE, the time of the above story in the Talmud. Then, as we know, Rome dominated the world, militarily and culturally. Rome was the future.

If you were standing by that arch then, what would you think about the future of Rome vs. the future of the Jewish people?

"While the holy Temple was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and 10,000 of those that were caught were slain; the flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those who were slain... one would have thought the whole city would have been on fire.” It is estimated that around 1,000,000 Jews died during the Roman destruction; thousands were sold as slaves. There were so many Jews flooding the slave market after the Great Revolt a Jewish slave cost less than a horse… in all of its manifestations, Jewish life had come to a brutal end. They had no homeland, no political independence, no nation, no future. It was the beginning of the longest exile Israel has ever known.

Now, let us forward 1,947 years later.

Where is Vespasian? Where is the Roman Empire? Gone. History. You can read about them on Wikipedia or in history books.

But where is that Menorah engraved on the Arch of Titus? Where are the Jewish slaves carrying that Menorah from Jerusalem to Rome?

Last Chanukah, 7,000,000 Menorah’s were lit worldwide by millions of Jews!

In the Roman Jewish community, tradition dictated that Jews never walk under that arch, since it was built as a demonstration of Jewish defeat.

But on May 14, 1948, when Israel was declared a state, the Jews of Rome had a triumphant parade… marching right under the arch. Their message was clear: "Rome is gone; we are still here."

How DID we survive and endure? Why are we here today?

The rabbi's "small" request from Vespasian guaranteed Jewish eternity in the face of the flames that would have otherwise consumed it. His request ensured that the Jews would outlive the Romans by thousands of years.

Few generals in battle can strategize thousands of years ahead. Usually they plan for days, weeks, months, maybe even years ahead. When Rabbi Yochanan stood before Vespasian, he was strategizing millennia ahead. In a subtle but brilliant way he led his people to a splendid victory.

"Give me Yavneh and its students," that is what I ask for.

It was in the schools of Yavneh where the sages devised how to ensure that Judaism live on in every Jewish home and heart. Jews became a people held together by a single thread: Study of Judaism's holy texts and performance of the Mitzvot. In place of the Temple came the synagogue, the Yeshiva and the Bet Midrash. In place of sacrifices came prayer, learning and the performance of good deeds. The mantle of leadership passed from kings, priests and prophets to the sage and the teacher who inspired students and communities. Exiled, dispersed and deprived of power, a shattered nation was rebuilt through one instrument: Education.

When Rabbi Yochanan asked Vespasian for Yavneh, he was not sacrificing the Jewish homeland; he was ensuring that the Jews would have a “portable homeland"—the Torah—that would travel with them on all their journeys.

Rabbi Yochanan understood that Rome was determined to destroy Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, and put an end to Jewish political independence. Sadly, there was no way around that. The question he asked himself at that fateful moment was: What can I do to ensure that my people will not perish like most other nations and civilizations?

With his eyes focused on eternity, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai grasped that the timeless power of Judaism was not the victory on the battlefield alone, but the flame of Jewish faith, the flame of Torah, the flame of Mitzvot, the torch of morality and the light of redemption. THESE could never be extinguished. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai understood that without a physical home, the Jewish people might survive; without a spiritual epicenter, they would certainly perish.

We hope we can turn around these days of sadness when we mourn for the destruction. Through our kindness, Torah study, love of our fellow man, and good deeds, Hashem should rebuild the holy Temple and bring joy and light to the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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