While many nations have come and gone, generation after generation of Jewish people has survived the worst, most concerted efforts at annihilation the world has ever devised. God preserved his people, often through the heroic responses of individuals who could see his faithfulness beyond their present woes. Those Jewish heroes seemed to have an understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” as expressed in 1 Chronicles 12:32. When all hope was gone, they took the ultimate step of faith. They did something anyway. Thus the Jewish people endured and flourished while their enemies vanished along the dusty byways of history.
Despite overwhelming personal and political odds, three men who lived during three difficult periods of Jewish history stand out as having made crucial contributions toward the survival and vitality of the Jewish people:
Yohanan ben Zakkai was born around the time of Jesus’ ministry. According to tradition, he received the Torah from rabbis Hillel and Shammai, prominent teachers of the generation preceding Jesus. Yohanan ben Zakkai served as a rabbi in Galilee for 18 years, then returned to Jerusalem.
Purportedly, after Yohanan’s return, about 40 years before the fall of Jerusalem, ominous events began to herald the coming destruction. Though the Temple gates were locked each night, the priests would arrive in the morning to find them wide open. Regarding this strange phenomenon, Yohanan said, “Why do you trouble us, O Temple? We know you are destined to be destroyed, as it is written, ‘Open your gates, O Lebanon, that the fire may enter and devour your cedars.” (Zechariah 11:1)
About 68 A.D. the armies of the Roman general Vespasian surrounded Jerusalem. The Zealot extremists, wanting to provoke a war against Rome, would not let anyone out of the city, but Yohanan devised a clever way of escape. He circulated rumors of his death and had his disciples carry him out in a coffin. Immediately he made his way to Vespasian’s tent and greeted him as though he were the emperor. Vespasian reacted angrily, but just then a messenger arrived to announce the death of the current emperor, which signified Vespasian’s promotion. Joyful over the good news, Vespasian offered to grant a request to Yohanan. Knowing that he could not hope that Jerusalem would be spared, Yohanan asked instead for the coastal town of Yavneh. Vespasian agreed to leave it untouched. Yohanan went to Yavneh, assembled a court and a school and paved the way for Judaism to continue without a Temple and without Jerusalem. Today Yavneh is nothing but an archeological site, but Jerusalem is once again in Jewish hands, made possible in part by the vision and action of Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, often referred to as Rashi, was born in 1040 in the Champagne district of northern France. There he grew up learning the various aspects of winemaking. As a young man he went to Mainz and Worms in Germany to study Talmud. At age 26 he came home an ordained rabbi. While he and his family grew grapes and made champagne, Rashi also founded a small school. His best students turned out to be his relatives, both by blood and by marriage. Even though Rashi’s school did not yet rival the great academies of eastern Europe, the work he did there would be crucial one day to the survival of the Jewish people.
Rashi succeeded in writing commentaries on almost the whole Old Testament and the Babylonian Talmud. The mere completion of such works is a large accomplishment, but Rashi’s commentaries, besides being complete, were good—so good, in fact, that they began circulating almost immediately. Since that time, they have been published in virtually every edition of the Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud that contains a commentary. You can walk into any rabbinical school in the world today and find Rashi’s commentaries being studied and taught alongside the sacred Jewish texts.
Near the end of Rashi’s life his commentaries proved their value. During the first Crusade (a misguided attempt to free the Holy Land from the Moslems), overzealous crusaders also destroyed many of the major Jewish centers of central and eastern Europe. Academies and synagogues were devastated. Rabbis and teachers were killed. Jewish learning might have suffered severely and even died out, had it not been for Rashi, the rabbi from northern France who labored tirelessly to write his world-class commentaries for the students of his small school. Since his death, Rashi has taught many more students than he ever dreamed of teaching during his lifetime.
Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman was born in 1858 in a small town in Lithuania. His family was Orthodox. His father died when Eliezer was only five. After his Bar-Mitzvah, at 13, he was sent to live with an uncle who could provide for his education. The head of the traditional yeshivah (religious school) secretly agreed with the “enlightenment” movement among the Jewish people, and he introduced Eliezer to secular books written in Hebrew. It wasn’t long before Eliezer was caught reading a Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe, and his uncle had him expelled from the academy. To “save him from heresy,” he sent him to Vilna to continue his rabbinical training. There Eliezer met Samuel Jonas, who persuaded him to prepare for a more modern secondary education. Jonas’ daughter Deborah taught Eliezer Russian, French and German, and a year later Eliezer was off to Paris.
During this time, the struggle of some small Balkan states for independence and national revival captured Eliezer’s imagination. Why couldn’t the Jewish people experience such a national revival on their own soil? He determined to move to Palestine and pursue his dream of establishing a Jewish homeland. To enable him to earn a living, Eliezer studied medicine, but soon his studies were cut short. He had tuberculosis. In 1881, not knowing how long he might live, he moved to Palestine. There the climate was more favorable to his condition, and he could live out his days pursuing his dream. Deborah Jonas insisted on accompanying him. They were married in Cairo and settled in Jerusalem.
Convinced that a Jewish homeland needed living Hebrew as its national language, Eliezer undertook courageous, even fanatical steps to bring it to pass. Laboring under impossible financial and health conditions, Eliezer began teaching in Hebrew at a school for Jewish boys in Jerusalem. He published a weekly paper called Ha-Tzvi. It became the first Hebrew newspaper that met European standards of quality and content. When Deborah became pregnant with their first child, Eliezer determined that this child would be the first Hebrew-speaking child in nearly 2000 years. He determined that nothing but Hebrew be spoken in the child’s presence. He also formed a society with others who were like-minded, and they covenanted together to speak only Hebrew.
Ironically, Deborah died first of tuberculosis. Eliezer lived until 1922, long enough to see his dream fulfilled. Several waves of immigration brought thousands of Jewish people into the Land. Jewish settlements, businesses and schools sprang up and began to operate in Hebrew. Soon the better part of Eliezer’s 16-volume dictionary of the Hebrew language had been compiled. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, completion of the dictionary became a state project. Almost single-handedly this unlikely Lithuanian Jew, in poor health most of his life, produced the first generation of Hebrew speakers in modern times. His efforts paved the way for the rebirth of the State of Israel.