An Unlikely Rise To Greatness
From the descendants of Sancherev, a heathen King of Ashur who attempted to destroy Yerushalayim, arose great teachers in Israel — Shemayah and Avtalyon. At an early age, they became proselytes and devoted their lives to the study of Torah. Eventually they became great scholars. Wherever they went, people followed them to hear them expound the living words of Hashem
One day, the Kohen Gadol came out of the Beis HaMikdash and began walking home. When people saw the Kohen Gadol they began following him. Soon a large multitude of people gathered behind him and one of the leaders called out: “Make way and give honor to the crown of priesthood!”
At that moment the Sages, Shemayah and Avtalyon, happened to pass by. Immediately, the entire crowd left the Kohen Gadol and began to follow them. Again the leader’s cry rang out: “Make way and give honor to the crown of Torah!” The people thought more of the Sages than they did of the Kohen Gadol as they pressed close behind them to catch some pearls of wisdom.
Kohen Gadol Jealous When the Kohen Gadol saw the way the people honored the Sages, he became envious and angry. He kept his temper and ignored the Sages. The Sages, however, greeted the Kohen Gadol
“Greetings to you, Kohen Gadol,” they called out. “Will you be kind enough to give us a blessing?”
Angrily, the Kohen Gadol retorted: “Let the descendants of our people go in peace and be blessed.”
The people heard this remark and they kept quiet. They realized that the Kohen Gadol was insulting the Sages by reminding them of their heathen birth.
Shemayah and Avtalyon didn’t feel offended, and in a humble tone replied: “True, let the descendants of our people go and come in peace and be blessed, provided they follow in the footsteps of Aharon Kohen Gadol (who loved peace and pursued peace). But let not the son of Aharon go in peace, if he does not follow in his footsteps and emulate his good traits.”
The Kohen Gadol realized that he had committed a sin by insulting the Sages and he remained silent. The crowd, however, began heaping insults upon the Kohen Gadol, who was forced to retire ignominiously; then they followed the Sages and accorded them the greatest honor.
Therefore, our Sages state: “A scholar, although he may be of illegitimate birth, takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol who is an ignoramus.”
Rabi Shimon Ben Gamliel
Pride And Honor Chazal teach that a man should always be gentle and avoid honor and haughtiness. It was because this advice was not followed that a grave dispute arose amongst some of our Sages.
One day, the following mishna was taught in the Academy: When the Prince (nasi) enters, all the people rise and do not resume their seats until he requests them to sit. When the Rosh Sanhedrin enters, the people occupying the two rows of seats facing the entrance rise and remain standing until he takes his seat. When the Chacham enters and remains standing, everyone whom he passes rises until the Sage has taken his seat.
This mishna was taught during the time Rabi Shimon ben Gamaliel was the nasi, Rabi Natan was the Rosh and Rabi Meir was the Chacham. When Rabi Shimon ben Gamaliel would enter, all the people would arise and remain standing until he took his seat. Likewise, the same honor was accorded to Rabi Natan and Rabi Meir.
Rabi Shimon, wanting to increase the prestige and influence of the prince’s office, said: “If all the people arise for all three of us, there is no difference between me and the others, and I would prefer that a distinction should be made to elevate the prince’s office.”
He thereupon issued a decree and enacted the rules laid down in the above mishna. However, he did so in the absence of Rabi Meir and Rabi Natan. They following day, when they entered the academy and saw that the people did not rise for them, they asked for a reason. They were told that Rabi Shimon had issued a decree ordering these variations.
Rabi Meir became angry and he said to Rabi Natan, “I am the Chacham and you are the Rosh; let us also enact some rules in our behalf.”
Attempt To Trap “What can we do?” asked Rabi Natan.
“Let us ask Rabi Shimon to teach us the Talmudic tract Uktzin. We are well aware that Rabi Shimon is not versed in this tractate and when he will not be able to answer our questions, we will say to him: ‘Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord?’ (Tehillim 106:2). He who can teach all of His praises. We will then depose him and you will take his place and become Prince and I will take your place.”