Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was one of the great heroes of the Jewish People. He lived at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in approximately the year 70 C.E..
He realized the futility of resisting the Romans at that time, but that it was possible for the Jewish People to survive even exiled from its spiritual center, Jerusalem, and its heart, the Holy Temple and its homeland, the Land of Israel. That ability was based on the fact that it had in its possession the Torah, the Law of G-d, that could not be taken from them.
When Vespasian, the Roman General, soon-to-be-Emperor, offered to grant him three wishes, he did not request the salvation of the City nor the Temple, for he realized that the Romans were too deeply committed to their destruction, and would never grant him those. He did, however, request that the Romans spare Yavneh, the new home of the “Sanhedrin,” the Jewish Supreme Court, and its Torah Sages.
He realized that the study of the Torah and observance of its “Mitzvot,” Commandments, would allow the Jewish People to continue to exist wherever they were exiled to in the world, and it would enable them to keep the memory of the Temple burning in their hearts, so that it would never be forgotten. When HaShem would have mercy on His People, and allow them to return to their land, they would be ready.
As “Nasi,” or “Prince,” he made enactments and instituted customs for the specific purpose of serving as memory-aids for the People, so that they would never forget what life was like when they had their Temple.
But the ultimate uncertainty of human life is reflected in the Talmudic account that upon his deathbed, he wept and said, “I don’t know on what road I will be taken.” For even though history seems to have strongly corroborated the truth of his analysis, he was never absolutely certain that he had not erred by not requesting it all – the salvation of the Temple and Yerushalayim!
He was a descendant of the House of David and his family has kept alive through the ages the hope of the People of Israel for the arrival of their Anointed King, the Mashiach, may he arrive soon, and in our days.