I was talking yesterday to a friend, Everett Gendler, a retired rabbi, a neighbor and a very knowledgeable and thoughtful person. He and his wife, Mary, go each year to Dharamsala, India to work with the Tibetans in exile there on the techniques of strategic non-violence, ways of defending and promoting Tibetan independence that does not bring disaster down upon the Tibetans living under the yoke of the Chinese. He was telling me that a conversation a colleague of his had with the Dalai Lama about the career of the great Jewish sage, Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the few heroes to come out of the great revolt of the Jews against the Romans. While the Zealots were pushing the Jews to an all-or-nothing war against the Romans — even burning the Jews’ food supply at one point to push the people into desperate resistance — Yochanan ben Zakkai saw that the revolt would end in catastrophe: the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem and the needless slaughter. Unable to prevent the worst — and avoiding an order by the Zealots that anyone advocating surrender should be executed — Yochanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem, disguised as a corpse in a coffin. He then negotiated with Vespasian, the Roman commander (and future Emperor), who was putting down the Jewish revolt and negotiated conditions for the continuance of Jewish life after the end of the conflict.
The final result of the Great Revolt was the estimated death of about a million Jews — a staggering figure given the small population numbers at the time, the destruction of the second temple and the dispersion of the Jews around the world. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Everett explained, laid out the terms of Jewish life in the diaspora: a moral life in exile. Learning this story, the Dalai Lama reportedly said that he thought that he might be the reincarnation of Yochanan ben Zakkai.