A constant theme of Rabbi Berel Wein’s writings and lectures is that the Torah is about people, not events. The Torah was never intended to sit on a shelf somewhere as so many books do. In fact, its laws and traditions were intended to be transmitted orally, evidence of the fact that it is people to whom and for whom the Torah was given.
So while great importance is given to the events of the Tanach, it is really impossible to understand the story of the “people” of the books without learning about the character and personalities of the people themselves. And it is the oral tradition that gives us this understanding.
While the Tanach provides us with a thumbnail sketch of many of the great men and women of Jewish history, it is in the Talmud, midrashim and other rabbinic writings where their personalities are developed. The Talmud, written in the period between the second and sixth centuries C.E., is certainly the written repository of the oral law and tradition given on Sinai to Moses. But it is also a window into the hearts and souls of our biblical heroes and villains and an archive of people, events, traditions, customs, disputes, and relationships from biblical times onward.
Imagine the excruciating choice faced by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the second-century “great redactor” of the Mishna. Painfully aware of the biblical prohibition against codifying the oral law, he nevertheless was convinced that unless it was preserved in writing, the oral tradition would not survive the cataclysm of Israel’s imminent dispersion. And yet, by miracle or design (or both), the rabbinic writings authored over the next several hundred years as well as the pedagogic approach to learning them have preserved the “people-to-people” focus of the oral transmission.
Perhaps no one understood the importance of oral law as the basis for religious authority in Israel more than Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the leader of the Jews during the most tumultuous period in Jewish history. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 66 C.E., which led to the destruction of the Temple, Ben Zakkai arranged to be spirited out of the walled city and found his way to Vespasian, the Roman commander. He was nearly executed for greeting Vespasian as “Emperor” (Vespasian was a mere general), but, according to Rabbi Yonason Goldson,
As he finished speaking, messengers arrived informing Vespasian that the emperor had died and that the Roman senate had proclaimed him Caesar. Vespasian was so impressed by Rabban Yochanan’s insight that he offered to fulfill three requests.
“Give me Yavneh and its sages,” asked Rabban Yochanan. He also requested special protection for the family of the sage Rabban Gamliel, and a doctor for Rabbi Tzaddok, who had been fasting daily for the sins of his generation and had grown dangerously weak and frail.
And so Rabban Yochanan asked for Yavneh, a yeshiva in an obscure village to be sure, but one sufficiently distant from the centers of Roman authority for the sages to seek refuge and rebuild Torah for the next generations.
It was Rabban Yochanan’s foresight that preserved the oral Torah, established the academies that served as a foundation of rabbinic authority, and ensured that Torah could become great once again.
The stories of Rabban Yochanan and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi exemplify the centrality of people with great character and personality in the transmission of Torah. This is not to deny that Heavenly forces are at work, for surely divine inspiration and divine intervention played a central role in these events. Nevertheless, man is not just a created being but a creative one as well, and it is men and women of great intellect, personality, character and commitment that have spelled success for the Jewish people.
The Tanach and the great rabbinic works tell us of the great figures in Jewish history without whom it would be hard to imagine our survival. But the story of the Jews and Torah is also the story of Jewish men and women we don’t know, even in our generation, who quietly and tirelessly work on behalf of the Jewish people, saving lives, feeding children or sheltering families.
Like the Friends of the IDF in Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, who in their free time raise money and collect clothes, toothpaste and other sundries, then drive north to distribute them to soldiers and reservists (it seems like such a small thing, but try going without toothpaste and toilet paper for a day).