This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.Elisheva Maline
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples and they are these; Rabbi Eliezar ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose haKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel and Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch.
He [Rabban Yochanan] used to recount their merits: Eliezar ben Hyrcanus was like a cemented cistern which never lost a drop. About Yehoshua ben Chananya, the teacher said blessed is the mother who bore him. Yose haKohen is pious; Shimon ben Netanel fears sin and Elazar ben Arach is like a spring which flows with renewed vigor.
Rabban Yochanan had hundreds of students.The Talmud makes paradigms out of Rabbi Eliezar ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose haKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel and Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch's of great Torah scholars. The accepted way to pass down G-d's word is teacher to student; however, the mark of a truly great personality is one that is able to take his teacher's words and remold them to fit the needs of the next generation. These five men, the cream de la cream of Rabban Yochanan's group, wholly integrated their teacher's lectures. Not only did they swallow his teachings, they regurgitated them and retaught them with a richer flavor. The Talmud states regarding this, "I learned much from my teachers but from my students, I learned most of all."
What was it that Rabban Yochanan picked up? Each one of the top five had a personal style for learning. Perhaps the teacher saw, over the years, that the process of learning Torah, and learning in general, might take many turns.
Eliezar ben Hyrcanus was akin to a cistern which never lost a drop. Like a runner with endless amounts of stamina, Rabbi Eliezar's memory ability was limitless. He could recall every lesson taught to him by Rabban Yochanan with a lucidity and alacrity that astounded fellow students. Not only that, anything that went in was never forgotten; he retained everything. There is a significance in Rabbi Eliezar's being compared to a cistern and not something similar, like an air tight water tank. Thyis is because, with the passage of time, the liquid in a water tank grows stale. However, the water in a cistern, nature's larder, will maintain its natural sweetness. Rabbi Eliezar not only clung to the teachings of his Rabbi, he preserved their freshness just as if they'd been taught the other day.
About Yehoshua ben Chananya, the teacher said 'Blessed is the mother who bore him.' What significance is there in mentioning the mother? How can future generations of learners gain from the Talmud's insight into Rabbi Yehoshua's life? there is a general philosophy that self sacrifice and dedication begets greatness. From the moment she became aware of his conception Rabbi Yehoshua's mother would visit the local batei medrish (houses of Torah study) and ask the scholars to bless her belly. As an infant, she would place his crib near the doorways of batei medrish so that her child's ears could become accustomed to the lilting sing song of men in learning. Rabban Yochanan marveled at the result of a mother's dedication and preparation for her child's place in the world.
Irving Bunim shares the following anecdote: A woman once approached her gynecologist and asked him when would be a good time to begin her new born's education. The doctor replied, "You are nine months late." Truly, many gedolei hador (the wisest and holiest in each generation) have made it known that the merit of their greatness must be laid at the doorstep of the self-sacrificing mothers. For instance, Rabbi Dovid Abuhatzeira and the Baba Sali, his older brother, proudly declared their mother's vigilance in guarding her sons eyes from inappropriate sights. She, like Rabbi Yehoshua's mother, had begun this practice from the moment she discovered their conception. Thus, as children and while growing up, Rabbi Dovid and his brother exemplified the trait of shmirat einayim (guarding one's gaze from anything related to sin).
Yose haKohen was pious; Shimon ben Netanel feared sin and Elazar ben Arach was like a spring which flowed with renewed vigor. Why do these last three qualities receive a foothold in the Talmud among Rabban Yochanan's top five pupils? Torah learning is not a goal in and of itself. Piety, fear of sin and the urge to reach ever higher in one's search for growth must also play their part. Yose haKohen attained the innermost reaches of loving kindness toward his Creator and humanity. He was the embodiment of piety. Rabbi Shimon loathed sin the same way, lihavdil, Elphaba hated water. Both man and fictional character understood the mortal ramifications that contact with sin or water would cause them. Therefore, Rabbi Shimon observed the dictum "Make for yourself a fence around Torah" and avoided any thought or deed which might lead to transgression. Let's not forget that the Talmud also compared Rabbi Elazar to a spring. Unlike natural brooks which lessen or dry up with time, Rabbi Elazar's wisdom and vigor flowered with age.
Nowadays, in order to be a healthy person and contributing member of society, one must take the following, among other things, into consideration: emotional awareness, physical health, finances, fidelity or following one's dreams to actualization. Our cares and worries change with the seasons. The values Rabban Yochanan's students upheld are timeless; they can be found and molded to any age.