By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Gemara in Sukkah (28a) relates that Hillel the Elder had 80 students. Thirty of them were of the stature that they should have merited the Divine Presence descend upon them as it did on Moshe Rabbeinu. Nevertheless, at that point in Jewish history, there was no longer any prophecy. The generation was not sufficiently righteous that there should be individuals with that level of Divine inspiration.
Another group of 30 students were of such great stature that it was fitting that the sun should stand still (as it appears to us) for them as it did for Yehoshua. The remaining group of 20 students were somewhere in the middle of the first two groups.
The greatest of all of Hillel’s students was Yonasan ben Uziel. When he studied Torah, birds that were flying overhead were immediately scorched. It is interesting to note that the Gemara implies that this phenomenon did not occur while Hillel himself was studying Torah. Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explains that Hillel achieved a higher level of greatness than his student. The birds potentially could have been scorched when he learned as well. However, he was able to conceal the awesome power that his Torah contained.
A visitor to Radin on Tishah B’Av once watched the Chofetz Chaim closely. He wanted to be inspired by the Chofetz Chaim’s recital of Kinnos. However, to his surprise and consternation, the great tzaddik recited Kinnos in the same manner as everyone else. Yet, later that evening, he passed by the Chofetz Chaim’s home and witnessed his uncontrollable sobs. In public, the Chofetz Chaim didn’t want to demonstrate an extra piety over anyone else.
If Yonasan ben Uziel was Hillel’s greatest student, who was on the other end of the spectrum? Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai. Yet we find that before Hillel passed away he proclaimed that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai would be “a father in wisdom and a spiritual father of all future generations.” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai assumed the office of Nasi, the leader of Klal Yisrael, at the time of the Churban. He had five outstanding disciples. Among them were Rebbe Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer. They in turn taught Rebbe Akiva. Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnayos, studied under Rebbe Akiva’s students. The Talmud that we have today can be traced directly back to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai.
A rebbe once remarked, can you imagine if Hillel had decided to only focus on his greatest students? On the flip side, can you imagine if Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai sat dejected in class? After all, there were 79 students better than him? What if he decided to give up on his studies?
But Hillel taught all his talmidim, from the strongest to the weakest. He did not ignore student number 80. Further, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai himself didn’t give up in the face of stronger talmidim. He persevered until he became the leader of all Klal Yisrael.
Steve Moss is a credit-risk manager for a multinational financial-services firm. (Years ago, in his capacity as a vice-president with American Express/Shearson Lehman Hutton, he directed a donation of a truckload of computers and accessories to be delivered to Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. One of those computers had a full-height 10-megabyte hard drive!) During the summers, Steve coaches archery at a camp in New Hampshire. Understandably, the vast majority of kids do not practice their archery skills during the year. The summer is usually the only time they have to learn and master these skills. Consequently, their performance is reflective of the coach who has but a few short weeks to teach them these skills.
A highlight of the summer is the Robin Hood Invitational Tournament, where many camps compete in archery. Almost invariably, Steve’s camp wins the tournament. Steve explained that the format of the tournament is that in any given age group, the top six scores are counted. Other camps may have one or two superstars in each age group. Their coaches focus on the kids with the most latent talent. However, Steve focuses on all the campers. In any given age group, his first- and second-ranked camper may very well score worse than similarly ranked archers from a different camp. Yet he always wins with “bench”: positions 3, 4, 5, and 6. Other coaches in the tournament tend not to focus on those campers who don’t seem to have the knack for archery. But in Steve’s group the lower-ranked members carry the team. It’s this philosophy of focusing on the weaker students that ensures his camp victory year after year. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.