RABBI Johanan ben Zakkai saw that the end of Jerusalem was near. Every day he walked up and down in his room. His forehead was wrinkled with worry. He was not only worrying; he was thinking very hard.
Finally he exclaimed: "I have it. I know what I shall do!"
Soon you could have seen him hurrying to his pupils at his school. There they were, not children, but men. He found them talking about the siege, and worrying about the lack of food in Jerusalem. As Johanan entered, all became silent.
"I must leave Jerusalem. I must go to see the emperor himself," announced Johanan in a sad voice.
Of course his pupils were eager to know why the rabbi wished to leave the city; but they dared not ask.
Then one plucked up enough courage to say:
"But, Rabbi, you know, that those Jews, who do not want to surrender to the Romans, those Jews who believe we must fight the Romans, they will not--"
"Let anybody either enter or leave the city. They will kill anyone who wants to make peace with the Romans," another pupil ended the sentence.
"We shall find a way. I have something very important to ask of the Emperor. It is the only thing that will save the Jewish people. And they must, they shall be saved!"
There was silence for a while. Everyone was deeply moved. Yet no one had any idea as to what could be done.
"I have a plan. Listen carefully while I tell it to you." The Rabbi did not have to ask this of his pupils. They were only too eager to listen.
"We will spread a rumor," began the Rabbi in a low, clear voice, "that I am sick. And after a few days we will spread another rumor that I am dead."
The eyes of some of the young men lit up. They were beginning to see. Yes, they understood the Rabbi's plan.
"You will get a coffin," continued the Rabbi, "and put me into it. Then you will get permission to bury me."
"Splendid! Fine idea!" cried some.
"But, Rabbi, a dead body always seems much heavier than a living one. Suppose the officers lift the coffin. They will notice that it seems too light," said another pupil slowly and timidly.
The pupils were getting excited. Each one had something to say. They found it hard to listen patiently to one another, as they had always done. Before they knew it, they were all talking together. No one knew what the other was saying.
"Fill the coffin with rags," one voice called loudly above the rest. "Yes, fill it with rags to make it heavier." But even though he screamed he could hardly be heard. Only when the Rabbi began to speak were they all hushed.
"Yes," said the Rabbi, "Joshua made a fine suggestion. We will fill up the coffin, but we must find something heavier than rags."
"Stones will be good," called Eliezer ben Arakh, warmly.
So it was decided that the coffin would be filled with stones and then the pupils would carry it out of the city.
The Rabbi and the pupils went home. Soon the people of Jerusalem, prompted by Johanan's pupils, were saying to one another:
"How sad! Johanan, the great teacher in Israel, is sick, very sick. Johanan, the great rabbi, may die."
A few days later, everybody was mourning for Johanan.
Late at night, when everybody was in bed and even the night-watchmen around the city walls were beginning to get sleepy, the pupils of Rabbi Johanan came to his home all ready to carry the coffin containing the Rabbi and the stones.
It was getting chilly. The Rabbi covered himself with many wraps. The pupils, too, dressed themselves warmly. The Rabbi got into the coffin and it was locked. The students, three at each side and one at each end, carried the coffin. About fourteen walked ahead carrying lanterns to light the way, and so they passed through the city. Not a person could be seen or heard. Not even a dog barked. Neither the moon nor the stars were out.
Can you see them as they walked along? They were hopeful, yet a little afraid.
"How will it all turn out?" they wondered. They stopped once to relieve those who were carrying the coffin.
Suddenly they heard an officer calling to them. Trembling, they stopped. Those who were holding the coffin could hardly keep from dropping it.
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"What are you doing out here, so late?" asked the officer sternly.
"Rabbi Johanan died and we are carrying his body out of the city to be buried," answered Joshua, whom they had chosen as their spokesman. The officer hardly listened to their answer, commanding them to pass on.
And on they continued in silence. They were just aching to speak to the Rabbi. They were just aching to find out how he was feeling and to tell him that all was well. They did not know whether he could hear everything or not. But on they had to walk in silence. They dared not take any chances. Suppose someone should come along and hear them talk into the coffin. No. They had to hurry out of the city as quickly as possible.
Ben Biatach, one of the Jews who believed that they must fight the Romans, was a friend of Rabbi Johanan. So, when the pupils had at last reached the city walls they had no trouble there.
Soon they found themselves outside the city walls. There were the Roman soldiers, drinking and singing. Some could hardly stand on their feet from drunkenness. But they still knew what they were there for. As the lanterns and the coffin approached them, one of the soldiers staggered over and said:
"Don't you know the law?"
"Yes, but all we want is to bury our Rabbi."
On hearing this, a few of the officers came over to the coffin. The students could hear their hearts thump. What would the officers do?
Sure enough, they lifted up the coffin and found it quite heavy.
"Heavy man, your Rabbi," one laughed.
"From this it does not seem that they are starving yet in Jerusalem," jeered another.
The students remained quiet all this time.
Then one of the soldiers took out his spear and motioning to them to open the coffin, he said, "I'll just stab once to make sure he is dead."
This was altogether unexpected. Beads of cold sweat stood out on the students' foreheads. What should they do? What should they say?
Then Joshua walked over and made as if he were going to unlock the coffin. But he stopped and in a tearful voice begged the soldiers:
"Please, please don't dishonor, don't defile the body of our Rabbi. Among us Jews it is a great insult to stab a body. You know only too well, that our Rabbi is dead."
"Aw, let them pass. They have wasted too much of our time as it is. Come, come let us go back. Let
us drink a little more for the night will soon be over." Saying this, they threw their arms across one another's shoulders and walked away.
The students could hear the soldiers singing as they went on their way:
They smiled to each other and began to sing along with the soldiers: "Hey-ho-hey-ho-----."
They were so very happy. In a few minutes, they would be a safe distance from the walls. Then they would open the coffin and all their fears would be over.
At last--it seemed like years to them--they set down the coffin. Breathlessly they opened it. Then they heaved one long sigh-h-h-h-h--as the Rabbi greeted them with a smile.
They did not wait to be thanked, but wishing Rabbi Johanan success, returned home.
The Jerusalem sky was ablaze with many, many colors. A new day was dawning. What would it bring?
Now what was Rabbi Johanan's wish? Was it really so important? Think of it, the Rabbi had risked
his life for it! His pupils had helped him most willingly, but they had no idea why the Rabbi had gone to the general, Vespasian.
It was afternoon when Rabbi Johanan appeared before Vespasian, the general. Vespasian had heard of Rabbi Johanan. He knew that the Rabbi had always desired peace with the Romans. So he felt kindly towards Johanan.
"Blessed be the Emperor Vespasian," said Rabbi Johanan as he came in.
"For that, you ought to die twice," Vespasian answered angrily. "First of all, I am not an emperor; so you are just making fun of me. Secondly, if I am the Emperor, why haven't you come to me before this?"
"I didn't come to you sooner because they would not let me out of the city. And I tell you again you are, you are the Emperor."
Just as Rabbi Johanan was saying these words, a messenger from Rome was ushered in.
"Hail to the Emperor Vespasian!" saluted the messenger. "The Emperor has just died and you have been made the new Emperor."
Vespasian was of course very happy. He liked Rabbi Johanan even better than ever.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.
"Yes, I came to ask a little favor," answered the Rabbi. "Sooner or later the Romans will capture Jerusalem. Now all I ask is that you allow me to build a Jewish School in Javneh. That is a little town not far from Jerusalem."
"Your wish will surely be granted," said Vespasian. To himself he thought, "That Rabbi is foolish, after all. He could have asked for a high position in the kingdom, or for some expensive jewels--something worth while, something big, something important. Instead he asked for such a trifle."
Rabbi Johanan, however, was very happy. He had staked his life. He might have been killed in the coffin but he had succeeded in the end. Perhaps Jerusalem would be destroyed. Jews would be killed or driven out of Jerusalem. Perhaps they would be driven all over the world. But they would not die out. They would have the school in Javneh. That school would teach the Jewish children and the Jewish young men and women. That school at Javneh would tell them of the sad and the happy days of the Jews. That school would tell them of the wonderful, wonderful heroes of the Jews. That school would keep the Jewish people together. That school would keep the Jewish people alive. Johanan journeyed to Javneh immediately and began to build that most important school.