Shiur #18: Leadership and Making a Living

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #18: Leadership and Making a Living


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Rabban Gamli'el and Rabbi Yehoshua were traveling on a boat.  Rabban Gamli'el had brought bread along while Rabbi Yehoshua had brought both bread and flour along.   Rabban Gamli'el's bread ran out, and they relied upon Rabbi Yehoshua's flour.

[Rabban Gamli'el] said to [Rabbi Yehoshua]: "Did you know that the trip would be so delayed, that you brought flour?"

He said to him: "There is one star that rises every seventy years and confuses the sailors.  I thought perhaps it would rise and confuse us."

He said to him: "You have so much in your hand [you are so knowledgeable] and yet you are sailing on this boat?"

He said to him: "Instead of wondering about me, wonder about your two students on dry land, Rabbi Elazar Chisma and Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgada, who know how to estimate the amount of drops in the ocean, and yet they do not have bread to eat or clothes to wear." 

[Rabban Gamli'el] decided to appoint them to the top.  When he came ashore, he sent for them and they did not come.  He sent for them again, and they came.

He said: "You think that I am offering you a position of authority?   I am offering you servitude, as it says 'If you will be a servant for this people today'" (I Melakhim 12:7).  

(Horayot 10a)


What surprises Rabban Gamli'el about Rabbi Yehoshua's presence on the boat?  Rashi explains that having seen the wide-ranging knowledge of Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabban Gamli'el is surprised that the latter struggles to make a living and needs to go on a sea journey.  Rabbi Yehoshua points out in response that plenty of intelligent people find it difficult to make a living.  He tells Rabban Gamli'el to consider his two outstanding students living in poverty.


            When meeting wealthy people, we often find that they do not strike us as brilliant thinkers who would shine in a Talmud or physics class.  We are struck by the apparent disparity between their material success and their level of intelligence.  Referring to such cases, my grandfather recited an old proverb that "Hashem gave this person a lot of money because he would not otherwise be able to support his family." Of course, the paradox is to some extent resolved when we recall that there are different types of brainpower, and business acumen may belong to a very different category than many forms of academic excellence. 


            The Tosafot Ha-Rosh cites the Ramma, who rejects Rashi's interpretation because Rabban Gamli'el surely understands that smart people are not always wealthy.  According to the Ramma, Rabban Gamli'el wonders how someone so knowledgeable about the difficulties of sailors could undertake a dangerous boat trip.  As Rabbi Yissakhar Eidelberg points out in his Be'er Sheva, the Ramma's interpretation makes Rabbi Yehoshua's rejoinder difficult to understand.  The two brilliant students had not undertaken a sea journey, so how are they relevant to Rabban Gamli'el's question?


            Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua informs Rabban Gamli'el that making a living is not simple; it forces people to take on certain risks that they might otherwise have avoided.  The two excellent students may have chosen to stay on the security of dry land, but they remain unable to put bread on the table. Rabbi Yehoshua may have undertaken certain risks, but these risks enable him to support his family.


            It is impossible not to link this dialogue with a parallel conversation between these two personalities in Berakhot 28a.  There, the wealthy patriarch Rabban Gamli'el comes to visit Rabbi Yehoshua's house and is amazed to discover that the walls are black (Rabbi Yehoshua was a smith).  Rabbi Yehoshua chides Rabban Gamli'el for being a leader who does not understand how the common people live.  This gemara may also illustrate the need for the rich and aristocratic leadership to appreciate the difficulties many face in eking out a living.


            Both the preceding interpretations assume that the question has to do with the wisdom of Rabbi Yehoshua.  R. Yitzchak of Karlin (in his Keren Ora) understands the question as relating to the righteousness of Rabbi Yehoshua.  In answering the question, Rabbi Yehoshua explains that material success and tziddkut do not precisely overlap in this world.  We should not easily identify the rich with the righteous, and we should not blithely assume that a real tzaddik would have no trouble making a living.  


            Various sages in this gemara exhibit a broad knowledge of science and mathematics that relates to such items as the patterns of the stars and the amount of water in the ocean.   Rabbi Yisra'el Lifshitz (Tiferet Yisra'el, Avot 3:18) notes that it is the same Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma who says, "Astronomy and geometry are auxiliaries to wisdom."  Apparently, we have examples of Talmudic sages who value a broad range of intellectual pursuits even as they view Torah as their essential field of study.


            Upon hearing about the plight of his two talented students, Rabban Gamli'el decides to offer them a job that would relive their financial stress.  Ramma (in Tosafot Rosh) understands that he wants to make them roshei yeshiva.  As an aside, I would point the reader's attention to the discussion in Rabbi Eidelberg's Be'er Sheva of this point, where he cites sources that suggest that the Rambam was incorrect to prohibit taking money for service in a rabbinic position.


            Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan initially do not respond to the summons of Rabban Gamli'el because they do not want the job. Rabban Gamli'el understands, apparently correctly so, that they are reluctant to take a job of authority. Perhaps they see themselves as unfit for such an illustrious job or they do not want the honor that goes with the title.


            Rabban Gamli'el assures them that Jewish communal work does not mean a life of power and honor.  Rather, it means a life of servitude and responsibility.  Therefore, those nervous about the dangers of power and honor can still enter this profession.


            Presumably, Rabban Gamli'el makes both a descriptive and a proscriptive point.  Firstly, rabbinic leaders receive more criticism than honor, and entering this field for the kavod seems like a misplaced hope.  More importantly, Rabban Gamli'el instructs them to enter the field for the right reasons; then they will discover that more servitude than authority awaits them.


            Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (in his Meromei Sadeh) states that even idealistic people in leadership positions sometimes need to exert authority to punish rebels or to stand up for the honor of their position.  It is this occasional need for authority and honor that initially deters Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan.  Rabban Gamli'el tells them that even these occasions can be accomplished without a focus on personal aggrandizement.  The Netziv differentiates between those leaders interested in personal glory and those trying to preserve the honor or Torah based on the language they employ.  I would add that communal leaders must also be wary of using the language of kevod ha-Torah even as they actually think about personal stature.


            This gemara appears in the appropriate tractate: Horayot deals with scenarios in which the Jewish leadership made mistakes.  Minimizing such mistakes and having the ability to admit to them depends on leaders that appreciates the struggles of average people and also serve out of a sense of duty more than out of a desire for authority and fame.