Home Perspectives Opinions To not just survive, but thrive, look to Yochanan Ben Zakai

To not just survive, but thrive, look to Yochanan Ben Zakai

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Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans depicted in an 1850 painting by David Roberts. WIKIPEDIA

On Tisha b’Av, as I sat on the floor listening to Megillat Eichah and the chanting of Kinot, I tried my best to participate in the communal mourning. Born of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, the day has taken on meaning for mourning all communal tragedies – from the Inquisition to the Crusades, pogroms to the Holocaust. As my stomach rumbled and my caffeine withdrawal-induced headache worsened, I found myself thinking less of communal destruction and more of communal survival.

Notwithstanding all these tragedies, centuries of persecution, slaughter, destruction and devastation, here we are thousands of years later, sitting on floors of synagogues, on the lawns at summer camps and on the cobblestones of Jerusalem, living a collective memory and carrying on a tradition.  That survival – even if only to mourn – is remarkable unto itself.

Most Tisha b’Av stories are tales of sorrow, destruction and pain.  One story, the story that carried me through Tisha b’Av this year, however, is a story of leadership. Leadership that ensured our survival and leadership that serves as an important lesson for us today.

The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem could have been the death knell for the Jewish people. As a people focused on the Temple and Jerusalem – a people whose religious, economic and social lives were driven by a single locus – its destruction could have ended us. Through audacious leadership exercised by Yochanan Ben Zakai, however, our people was sent in a different direction, enabling our continuity, albeit on a different path.   

We need more leadership like Ben Zakai’s.

Ben Zakai lived inside Jerusalem during the Roman siege. Seeing the destruction of the city and Temple as inevitable, he arranged a clandestine escape from the city and met with the Roman leader, Vespasian. Correctly predicting that Vespasian would ascent to emperor, Ben Zakai enamoured himself to the Roman leader and was granted three requests.  He did not ask for the salvation of Jerusalem, but rather for Yavneh and its sages.

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In Yavneh, the groundwork for the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish law, was laid. The sages of Yavneh forged a pathway for Jewish existence in an era without the Temple – a world of synagogues and prayers, a world where Judaism would spread to all four corners. The sages of Yavneh recreated Judaism into the religion that we know today, the religion that has survived for 2,000 years of Diaspora.

Ben Zakai was challenged for his decision to forgo Jerusalem and the Temple. He was charged with abandoning the heart of the Jewish people, with forsaking its very soul. He believed, however, that he couldn’t have saved Jerusalem – even if he asked for it, the Romans were bent on destroying the city – but could save Judaism.

Assessing the situation and analyzing the options available, Ben Zakai realized that Judaism would need to forge a new path. In asking for Yavneh and its sages, he ensured that the structures and leadership were available to guide our community and religion forward. Two thousand years later, our community persists because of Ben Zakai’s leadership.

As it has in the generations since Ben Zakai, the circumstances and challenges facing our community are changing. Ben Zakai was a leader who served as a visionary rather than a fiduciary, as an agent for change rather than an agent for continuity. It is this kind of leadership that our community needs to guide us through the rapid changes we are experiencing today.

As I sat on the floor on Tisha b’Av my thoughts drifted from communal mourning to communal surviving. With more audacious leadership like Ben Zakai, however, our thoughts could be set not on just surviving, but on thriving.


Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.