I once heard a shiur given by Rav Moshe Aaron Stern zt’l. In his inimitable way, he posed the following question. Hillel the Elder had 80 talmidim. The top of the list was Rav Yonatan ben Uziel, otherwise known as the Targum Yonatan. He used to have a fire above his head, which used to burn birds who were flying overhead. The sort of person you want to sit next to at a barbeque. ‘Floundering’ at the bottom of the list was Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose timely three point plan was accepted by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, thereby saving Rav Tzadok, the Royal line of King David, and all of the chachamim in Yavneh in one fell swoop.
Knowing only two names at positions 1 and 80, that leaves 78 talmidim, at least greater than Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, who remain unnamed. Who are they?
Before I attempt to give you the answer, please indulge me by reading on.
In the beginning of Megillat Ruth we are told that a man from Bethlehem in Yehudah went to live in the fields of Moav, because of the famine in Eretz Yisrael. Chazal criticise this person for abandoning his people in their time of need and fleeing with his family to Moav.
When the Megillah first tells us of this person’s departure, he is mentioned anonymously (‘a man’). However, we do not remain guessing about his identity for very long. In the very next verse we are told that “The name of the man is Elimelech”.
Why the ‘cloak and dagger’? Why not write this story more ‘economically’ and tell us the name of the man and what he did in one pasuk?
To further exacerbate the point, I will quote you another verse:
“And a man went from the House of Levi and he married the daughter of Levi” [Shemot 2:1]. The Torah later
identifies these mysterious individuals as Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Moshe. But why the anonymity? Why not simply say: “And Amram went and married Yocheved”?
The Baal HaTurim in Shemot points out that these two places are the only times in Tanach where the Torah uses the expression “And a man went” (vayelech ish). The Baal HaTurim comments that the pasuk “A man went from the Tribe of Levi” brought about the first redeemer (Moshe Rabbenu) and the pasuk
“A man went from Bethlehem Yehudah” led to the final redeemer (Mashiach -who will descend from King David, a descendent of Ruth).
The Shemen HaTov elaborates on this Baal HaTurim. The person who produces the Redeemer can be an anonymous person. One does not need to be the great leader of his generation — an Amram or an Elimelech — to produce the Redeemer. Any Jew is capable of producing a child who will be the greatest personage in his generation and in fact a Redeemer.
The Chafetz Chaim once told the following story. During the reign of the Czar of Russia, a father and son worked together in Siberia to lay the tracks for the railroad. This was backbreaking labor. Night and day, under the most brutal conditions, from freezing cold to stifling heat, they worked putting their blood, sweat and tears into the Czar’s railroad. One day, the son turned to his father and asked, “Father, will the people that ride the train have any idea concerning the backbreaking labor that went into preparing this railroad?”
The father looked at his son and said, “It is not important what people will or will not think, what they will or will not know. We work for one reason and for one purpose: to fulfill the command of the Czar. He is our leader, our father, who provides for our country. He has asked us to build the railroad. That is all that counts.”
“The same idea applies to Torah study,” continued the Chafetz Chaim. “It is unimportant for us to know if those who later delve through Torah chidushim will appreciate the time and effort expended in their production. Likewise, it should not matter to us the amount of toil that we put into learning a difficult sugya. Everything that man does in this world should be executed with one focus in mind: he is carrying out Hashem’s will.”
One does not necessarily need to be great himself or have superior lineage or wealth or power. Any anonymous Jew can potentially produce the future leader of the Jewish people.
And that’s why we are not privy to the names of the students of Hillel. Regardless of the fact that they remain anonymous, their effect upon the history of Klal Yisrael was felt most acutely. Who knows how many times we have been saved from untold tragedies in the merit of these holy tzaddikim?
From red eye to Sinai, as you take part in the all night ‘stake-out’, make your stake in Torah. Even if you never get your name on a plaque, or will never have a synagogue named after you, you can sleep well after tikkun leyl – knowing that there is One who knows all, and Who will never forget what you did last Shavout.