From Yochonon Ben Zakai to Elazer ben Arach
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
July 18, 2009
Yochanon ben Zakai asked Vespatian for “Yavne ve Chachamecha”. He therefore lived through and represents the transition between two very different types of Judaism .  From the Judaism of Yerushalayim to the Judaism of Yavna, from the Judaism of the Bais Hamikdosh to the Judaism of the Chochomim.  Yavna was a small hick town.  Have you ever been to Yavna?  Of course everyone has been to Yerushalayim.  Yochonon ben Zakai had a basic mochloches with Rabbi Akiva, who came a generation later.  Yochonon Ben had the opportunity to ask Vespatian for something, and he asked for Yavneh and its Chochomim.  Rabbi Akiva later criticized him, saying that he should have tried to keep Yerushalayim.  In fact Rabbi Akiva spent his whole life trying to get back Yerushalayim.  He even appointed a Moshiach (Bar Chochba) to get Yerushalayim back. 
This wasn’t a mochlochet over negotiating strategy, of how to get the most that you can through negotiating.  For that you can take a course in negotiating, and doesn’t involve people of the stature of Yochonon Ben Zakai and Rabbi Akiva.  They had a fundamental machloches over how essential the kedushah of Yerushalayim was to the preservation of Judaism.  In Lomdis, it was a machlochet between the mokom and the gavra, the place or the people.
Yochonon ben Zaka was taking the risk that the Gavra was the essential element for survival, that we could keep Judaism thriving without Yerushalayim, by focusing on the Chochomim and what they produced.  It was a risky choice, but I think history has proven him correct. 
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos says that Yochonon ben Zakai had five talmidim.  Of course he had many Talmidim, but there were his five superstars.  They were the talmidim he was counting on to make the transition to the next generation, to survive the destruction of Yerushalayim.  They all went from Yerushalayim to Yavne.  Actually, Yochonon ben Zakai had also asked Vespatian for the restoration of the dynasty of Hillel, which in this generation was Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel.  The Romans had tried to destroy this dynasty, because Rome saw them as a sort of malchus that was a threat to them.  But Vespatian agreed to this request also.  So Yochonon ben Zakia didn’t want to interfere with the fledgling leadership of Shimon be Gamliel in Yavne, so he moved to a small town outside of Yavne.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos describes the five talmidim of Yochonon ben Zakai.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis was like a cistern that never leaked one drop.  This means he never forgot anything.  Personally, I find that hard to relate to.  I think it was Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky who said that at 60 years old, he finally understood what people meant by the word Shochach, forgetting.  I’m not even sure it was Rabbi Kaminetsky who said this – I think it was he who said it, but I don’t remember.
The last of Yochanan ben Zakai’s students that Pirkei Avos mentions is Reb Elazer ben Arach, and he is described as ”an ever renewable spring that always keeps flowing”.  Yochonon ben Zakai then says ‘go out and see’, go out in the community and see for yourselves, what is the best way for a person to be – in our context, what is the best way us to insure the survival of the Jewish people.  Rabbi Eliezer ben Hikanus says that one should have a good eye.  Others say “a good friend”, or “a good neighbor”. 
Reb Elazer ben Arach says the most important thing is to have a “lev tov”, a good heart.  What is a lev tov?  I think it means the pinimius of a person.  It’s more than what you do or what your surroundings are.  For example, if you see someone needs some change on the bus, it’s nice to give him a shekel or let him use a punch on your card.  That’s a nice and important thing to do.  But a lev tov goes much deeper.  It’s who you are in a very deep and fundamental sense.  It’s how you’ve integrated Yiddishkeit into your very being.  I believe that that is being a creative spring that is always flowing, and this is very tied together to having a lev tov.  
Yochonon ben Zakai said that this quality that Elazar ben Arach had – a lev tov – is the most important quality to help preserve the Jewish people in its transition to Yavneh and beyond.  Because the other qualities are external – they’re important – generosity, friends, environment – but it’s only the real insides of the person, the peninius – that will be crucial for Judaism to survive without Yerushalayim. 
I want to point out that the central period of the creation of the Talmud was a short period of about 200 years – from 100 years before the Churban to about 100 years afterwards.  Most of the people – from Hillel to Rabbi Akvia – that we read about it in Talmud – from just before and including the Tanaim – were in this period.  This was a devastatingly hard period – at the center of it was the destruction of Yerushalayim, the Bais Hamikdosh, during which Josephus says that over a million Jews were slaughtered. 
The Jews have been through a lot in their history.  And what is being said here is that it’s the Lev Tov that we need to survive.  In my childhood I saw the survivors of the Holocaust, and I’m not judging anybody, but I saw what enabled survivors to maintain their Judaism, to keep their faith.  It’s the people who’s Yidishkeit reached deep into the center of the hearts who were able to keep their faith.   If people have that penimius intact, then that is what is most important to keep Yiddishkeit alive.  This is true even if everything is forgotten for awhile, as it was when Tzidkiahu found a Torah hidden away in the Bais Hamidkosh – and no one alive had seen one of those before – it was the Yiddishkeit embedded deep inside their hearts – the Lev Tov - that enabled the renewal of Judaism.  This not only involves how the Lev Tov is resilient enough to enable us to survive a holocaust.  It also involves whether the Lev Tov can help us survive the school system.  The main advantage of a lev tov is that when a person is tested, it makes him stronger, it bring out the best in him.  Generosity, good friends, and good neighbors are good – but they are externals and may not get a person through the really hard tests.  But during tests, a lev tov enables a person to find inner resources that makes him stronger.
I grew up in Buffalo, where there were 100,000 people, 5,000 Jews, and 3 yalmulkas.  I was one of those Yalmulkas, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that every day I was challenged because of my yarmulke.  A non-Jewish kid would knock it off, or push me off my bike because of it.  One of the results is that to this day when I’m sleeping, if my yarmulke falls off, I put it back on.
The Gemorah in Chagigah, 14b, describes an incredible scene.  Yochonon ben Zakai is riding on a donkey, and Elazer ben Arach is behind the donkey, pushing it forward.  One leads a horse from the front, and a donkey from behind.  This is a dramatic moment – Yerushalayim is in flames behind them, and they’re on the way to Yavne.  Elazer ben Arach says, “Let’s learn something.”  Yochonon says what do you want to learn?  Elazer ben Arach says, “Let’s learn about the Maasa Merkavah”. 
The Maasa Merkavah was revealed to Yeheskel when he was in a similar situation, leaving Yerushalayim for Bavel during the first Churban.  Hashem revealed to him mystical things to enable him to survive the coming of Golus.  I believe that Arscroll, when it comes to the Maasa Merkava, doesn’t even translate the Hebrew, the concepts are so hidden and difficult. 
Before Yochanon ben Zakai agreed to talk about the Maase Merkavah, he asked Elazar ben Arach if he was someone who knows this subject by himself.  He asked this because mystical things can’t be talked about directly, they can only be talked about indirectly with people who already know about the subject.  Why is Maaseh Merkavah written so cryptically?  An analogy is let’s say we see a beautiful sunrise.  There’s a natural desire to describe it to someone.  We want to say, “The sun looked so beautiful, like an orange ball.” But when we take the essentially spiritual experience, and try to put it into words, we’ve turned it into gashmius, because words are gashmius – and then we’ve lost it.  So Kabalah and mystical subjects are not really talked about – they’re referred to in riddles, so that the subject can remain in the spiritual realm without being converted into words which would mean they are being turned into the physical and then the spiritual nature of the subject is lost.
So the Gemorah in Chagigah says that Yochonon ben Zakai got off his donkey, and sat down on a rock under an olive tree.  It’s as if to say, “If we are going to talk about Maasa Merkavah, I can’t be riding a donkey”.  The word donkey has the same root in Hebrew (Chamor) as physicality (Chomer), so he got off the donkey.  They started talking about the Merkavah, and the Gemorah says that the heavens opened up, the angels started talking, and fire appeared in the skies. 
What is the Maase Merkavah and why was it relevant to talk about it at this point in time?  Because the Maase Merkavah means the Shechinah on wheels.  This was so relevant to them at that moment in time because the big question was – will the Shechinah move with us from Yerushalaim to Yavneh, and then to England, New York, and wherever the Jews would go during the long Golus?  That’s why this was the relevant topic then, as it was for Yecheskel who also was leaving Yerushalayim during the first Golus, instead of discussing Hilchos Mukseh.
The Yalkut Shemoni on Kohelet says that the five talmidim of Yochanon ben Zakai stayed close to him while he was alive.  But they really didn’t thrive after he was nifter.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis became a Shamai-nik, and ended up in Charem, and we don’t learn any of his Halachas.  None of the five really did that well.  The Yalkut says that Elazer ben Arach – because of something to do with his wife – decided to move to a place that had good baths.  Some say it’s Damascus, but we don’t know the exact place.  We’ve found a shul in Damascus that says that this was where Elazer ben Arach was, but some say it’s not true.
Elazer ben Arach and his wife found themselves alone without any talmidim.  He said to his wife, let’s go to Yavneh where the talmidim are.  His wife answered, who should go to whom – should the mice go to the bread, or the bread to the mice?  So he stayed there, and eventually he forgot all his Torah.  This is also described in the Gemorah, the story that some of his talmidim went to visit him, and they read from the Torah on Rosh Chodosh.  In those days, everyone with an Aliyah read their own section.  So they called up Elazer ben Arach, and he couldn’t even read the posuk from the Chumash that said “It will be for you a Rosh Chodosh” – he got several of the words mixed up.  So his friends and talmidim prayed and cried for him, and in time his Torah returned.  As Yochanon ben Zakai had described him, he was a like a spring that regenerated itself.  He had a lev tov that regenerated itself.