The hungry lion paced around the amphitheater. tossing its head from side to side, eyeing the scores of jeering spectators who had paid to witness the fight. In a corner stood a muscular man, dressed in armor, waiting fearlessly with his spear and shield in hand. He had fought wild animals before and respected their strength, but he was determined to win this battle, just as always.
Without warning the lion roared, silencing the crowd. The gladiator felt his muscles tighten instinctively. He knew that his timing must be perfect because there would be only one chance for victory. Holding his spear low, he waited for the lion to pounce, and at that precise second, he buried his weapon deep into the beast's belly. As if it were shocked by the pain, the lion moaned loudly and fell backward. Instantly, the crowd erupted wildly, chanting their hero's name in unison. Shimon, the son of Lakish, raised his arms in victory. He had won again.
Life as a gladiator in the third century wasn't easy, but Shimon's career kept him fed and fit. He jingled the coins he had earned from killing the lion and thought how the cool waters of the Jordan River would soothe his weary muscles.
But when he arrived, he spied someone bathing in his favorite spot. Annoyed at the inconvenience. Shimon thought to himself: If men cower at the sight of my powerful physique, surely this stranger can be persuaded to bathe elsewhere. Without hesitating, Shimon removed his clothes and dove in.
When Shimon emerged from the water, the stranger--a strikingly handsome man--was staring at him. "Your strength," the stranger commented, "should be devoted to Torah."
Shimon quickly forgot his plan to intimidate the stranger. Clearly, this man was a Torah scholar, and Shimon hadn't thought of studying Torah since he left his religious life years ago. As unnerving as this stranger was, Shimon was confident that neither lion nor man would beat him today.
"Your looks," he retorted smartly, "should be devoted to women."
The stranger smiled. "I am Yohanan, the son of Nappaha,"he said," and if you think I'm good-looking, you should see my sister! Devote yourself to studying Torah and living a righteous life, and I'm certain she'll want to marry you."
Here was a challenge, and Shimon found it difficult to walk away from challenges of any kind. Yohanan's eyes penetrated the warrior's heart and spoke to his soul. Although Shimon didn't know it, Yohanan's eyes had witnessed tragedy throughout his life: growing up as an orphan, losing his ten sons prematurely, and enduring indescribable poverty. Nonetheless, Yohanan continued his Torah studies, and advanced to head his own yeshiva in Tiveria.
Although Shimon trusted no one, he felt an immediate kinship with Yohanan. He didn't know why. Perhaps it was because they shared something in common: Both knew how to overcome extraordinary challenges.
"I am Shimon, the son of Lakish," he said, shaking his new friend's hand. "And you have yourself a deal"
Rabbi Yohanan's academy in Tiveria attracted the finest scholars of the century, and Shimon, now Yohanan's brother-in-law and closest friend, rose to great levels in record time. He reviewed material 40 times before Yohanan's daily class, and challenged Yohanan's views repeatedly, asking questions nobody thought to ask. His reputation spread, until the sages commented that watching Shimon debate was like watching him uproot mountains and grind them together. In time, he had a new title: Rabbi Shimon, son of Lakish, or Reish Lakish for short.
The conversation began as one of their many disputes. Yohanan and Reish Lakish were discussing the point at which weapons become finished utensils.
"After being shaped in a furnace," insisted Yohanan.
"You are mistaken," replied Reish Lakish. "It is after they are dipped in water."
Yohanan could not resist the opportunity to tease his friend. "You're the expert on weapons, Reish Lakish," he said with a glimmer in his eyes.
Why must he remind me of my past as a gladiator? thought Reish Lakish as anger rose inside him. Haven't I proven myself as a scholar?
"You think you've done me a favor by bringing me here to learn?" Reish Lakish demanded. "Get over it! I was respected as a gladiator, and I am respected here. You've done nothing for me that I didn't do myself."
The insult hit Yohanan as squarely as the spear had pierced the lion's belly. "How dare you," he replied evenly. "I brought you closer to God."
Reish Lakish was too mortified to respond. He stood up abruptly and left the yeshiva.
Yohanan could not bring himself to apologize, not even after he heard that Reish Lakish was sick in bed after their angry exchange. When Reish Lakish's wife begged her brother to reconcile, Yohanan still refused. He should ask forgiveness from me. he thought.
But Reish Lakish died soon after, leaving Yohanan insane with remorse and anguish. He had made a terrible mistake from which he would never recover. Tears streaming down his cheeks, his clothes ripped in grief, he called over and over for the friend he would never see again.
"Where are you. Reish Lakish?" Yohanan cried until his own death. "Where are you?"
The friendship between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish is recounted in the Talmud, where you can read of their many debates.
By David Mitchell
Named for a Roman emperor, Tiveria (Tiberias) is a city in northeastern Israel, situated on the western shore of Lake Kinneret. During the second century, the Sanhedrin—the Jewish high court—resided in Tiveria, and thus the city became home to many Jewish scholars. Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, and the Rambam—all renowned Torah intellectuals—were buried in Tiveria. Rabbi Yoh.anan ben Nappah.a, mentioned in this story, opened his yeshiva in Tiveria in 235, and is credited with compiling the Jerusalem Talmud.
Today, Tiveria is a modern city with a population of over 35,000. Each year, people visit the city to swim in the Kinneret, relax in the hot mineral springs, visit the tombs of famous rabbis, and tour the archaeological gardens where the great Sanhedrin once sat.