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Leadership, Heroism and Public Positions

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #26: Leadership, Heroism and Public Positions

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

(Our story begins with Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, known as Rebbe, on his deathbed). He said to them: "I need the sages of Israel." The sages of Israel entered. He said to them: "Do not eulogize me in the cities and make a yeshiva after thirty days have passed. Shimon my son will be the Chakham, Gamliel my son will be the Nasi and Chanina bar Chama will sit at the head (of the yeshiva)." (Ketuvot 103a)

But wasn't there R. Chiyya (who was worthy to become Rosh Yeshiva)? He had already passed away. But didn't R. Chiyya say: "I saw Rebbe's grave and cried upon it?" Reverse the names (It was Rebbe who cried at R. Chiyya's grave). And didn't R. Chiyya say: "The day that Rebbe died, sanctity was negated?" Reverse the names. And didn't we learn that when Rebbe was (deathly) sick, R. Chiyya came in to visit him and found him crying. He said: "Rebbe, why are you crying. Did we not learn that if one dies smiling, it is a good sign for him. If one dies crying, it is a bad sign for him…. He (Rebbe) said to him: "I am crying about (the lost opportunity for) Torah and mitzvot."

If you want, you could reverse the names. If you want, you could say that there is no need to reverse the names. R. Chiyya (who did outlive Rebbe) was involved in mitzvot and Rebbe did not want to stop his work. This as we have learned that when R. Chanina and R. Chiyya were arguing, R. Chanina said: "You are quarreling with me. If, God forbid, Torah was ever forgotten in Israel, I could restore it with my reasoning." R. Chiyya said to him, "I make it so that Torah is not forgotten in Israel because I bring flax and plant it and make nets and trap deer. I feed the meat to orphans and I make parchment from the deerskin and go to a town without a teacher of children. I write the five books of Chumash for five children and I teach the six orders of Mishna to six children and I tell each child to teach his part to the others." This is what Rebbe meant when he said: "How great are the deeds of Chiyya." (Ketuvot 103b)

Rebbe divides up the various communal leadership positions on his deathbed. He himself, following the path of his ancestors, had acted as both Patriarch and Rosh Yeshiva. However, his sons were apparently not capable or worthy enough candidates to combine the two positions. R. Yaakov Kaminetsky (Emet le-Yaakov on Avot) notes that in Avot (2:2), Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rebbe says: "All those who toil on behalf of the community should toil for the sake of heaven because the merit of their fathers is aiding them." He explains that this sentiment was particularly crucial in the generation of the speaker. Before this generation, Hillel, Rabban Gamliel and the other patriarchs had both directed the learning at the yeshiva and ran the political body of the Jewish community. Now that these two jobs had been split, the danger of the patriarchite turning into a purely secular body, divorced from Torah values, became quite real. Rabban Gamliel, himself the Nasi, understood this danger. He reminded himself that his work on behalf of the community demanded the best motives and the humility to realize that only the Torah-excellence of his ancestors had enabled him to become Nasi.

The Gemara apparently thinks that R. Chiyya was the most deserving candidate to head the yeshiva, but Rebbe did not choose him: either because R. Chiyya had already passed away or because Rebbe did not want to take him away from the important work he was doing. This second answer teaches us that giving official positions to great individuals does not always increase their productivity. Sometimes, the weight of office involves them in a world so packed with meetings, fundraising and the like that they cannot directly teach Torah. I often think that Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's refusal of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in order to remain a maggid shiur was a fortunate moment for the Jewish people. Rather than becoming mired in a world of bureaucracy and politics, he continued to teach profound Torah and inspire hundreds of students. While the parallel is imprecise because the Rosh Yeshiva job certainly does include teaching Torah, R. Chiyya apparently needed to continue the crucial work he was already engaged in and not become distracted with new titles and responsibilities.

A number of achronim raise a basic question. The closing exchange between R. Chanina and R. Chiyya seems to indicate that R. Chanina was indeed a bigger talmid chakham than R. Chiyya. After all, his sheer powers of reasoning could restore the entire Torah. Shouldn't he have been the obvious candidate to head the yeshiva - without us needing special reasons to disqualify R. Chiyya? The Penei Yehoshua answers that while R. Chanina was superior at analytical reasoning, R. Chiyya knew more material. As a well-known Gemara in Horayot (14a) states that we prefer the more knowledgeable scholar, so when confronted with such a choice of candidates, R. Chiyya became the logical selection.

The Chatam Sofer offers a different explanation in his commentary on Ketuvot. He explains that R. Chiyya was not the best choice due to his erudition, but due to his righteousness. Perhaps R. Chanina knew more and analyzed more deeply than R. Chiyya. At the same time, being an exemplary Rosh Yeshiva depends upon much more than intellectual creativity and storehouses of knowledge. The Rosh Yeshiva must care greatly about his students and about the rest of Am Yisrael. He must exhibit sterling character and serve as model of moral refinement. Of course, he must be a fine scholar as well. However, it is not always the case that the greatest scholar makes the greatest Rosh Yeshiva. Therefore, despite R. Chanina's excellent scholarship, R. Chiyya was the logical choice, except for the fact that Rebbe did not want to take him away from the significant work he already did.

To fully appreciate the work of R. Chiyya, we should mention another frequently asked question. Why did R. Chiyya feel the need to plant the flax, make the nets, and trap the animals himself? Surely, he could have just bought the meat at the butcher and paid for the parchment at the local scribe. The Maharsha (commentary on Bava Metzi'a 85b) explains that he wanted every part of the endeavor to be done for the sake of heaven. In a sense, he wanted to sanctify the nets used for trapping as if they too were ritual objects. We might suggest an alternative explanation. Perhaps the Gemara wants to remind us that important work frequently requires more than the actual teaching of Torah. Sometimes, it demands putting major energy into the less glorious task of procuring food for the students. While a teacher must avoid overwhelming distractions that ultimately prevent his teaching of Torah, the teacher must also realize that there are often significant parts to the job that take place outside of the classroom.

The most powerful note in this aggada may emerge from the different conceptions of heroism expressed by R. Chanina and R. Chiyya. The former says that in a situation of a disastrous crisis of learning, he could save the day and restore the lost Torah. We often think of heroism as most books and movies portray it: the hero who enters the fray when everything has fallen apart and proceeds to diffuse the crisis. Yet R. Chiyya understands a more profound type of heroism. With laborious efforts, clever planning and an indifference to the limelight, R. Chiyya prevents the crisis from ever occurring. This reflects authentic greatness. Lacking the acclaim of public office or the popular recognition that comes from extinguishing a pre-existent fire, R. Chiyya quietly went from town to town, teaching children and preventing the Torah from becoming lost.