One of my favorite texts in all of rabbinic literature is Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:21, the tale of a discussion between Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple -- through which they both had lived. Rabbi Joshua is grieved at the sight of the Temple ruins; Rabban Yochanan comforts him, saying that we have another means of atonement which is no less efficacious -- acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim.)
Rabban Yochanan is a fascinating figure. He was the head of the Sanhedrin (that is what the title Rabban means) during the revolt against the Romans from 65 to 73 C.E. Shortly before the Temple was destroyed, he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem and struck a deal with the Roman army, allowing him to relocate the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem to Yavneh on the Mediterranean coast. It was Rabban Yochanan’s pragmatism in realizing that there was no point in fighting the world’s only superpower that allowed Judaism to continue. The Zealots continued to fight, resulting in the destruction of the Temple. Some of those who survived retreated to Masada where they continued to hold out for another three years, eventually committing mass suicide in 73 C.E.
There is something paradoxical in that Masada has become a place of pilgrimage but few American Jews have ever been to Yavneh or know the name of Yochanan ben Zakkai. The Zealots of Masada were certainly brave but their course of action lead to a dead end -- the destruction of Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of Jews slain or enslaved, and ultimately mass suicide (certainly a violation of Torah law). Rabban Yochanan was denounced by the Zealots as a traitor and a sellout but the establishment of the Academy at Yavneh lead to the creation of the Mishnah and the transformation of Judaism from a system of sacrificial worship focused on one geographical location to the “portable homeland” of Torah study, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness.
We may for whatever reason admire the Zealots of Masada but we are here today because of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and his followers.