Rav Yanai was a giant in his generation, the generation immediately following the leadership of Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi.
After a long period of persecution by the Roman Empire and post the Hadrian Decrees, Rebbe Yehudah HaNasi ushered in a new generation of renaissance. He moved the great academies of Torah scholarship back to the centers of Israel and redacted the Mishna. By the time Rebbe passed away from this world, Torah was in a different place and the scholars stood on a new pedestal.
The Midrash reports the well-known story of a traveling salesman in the town of Tsipori, the town in Northern Israel where Reb Yehudah HaNasi spent the last years of his life.
The salesman walked the markets of Tsipori shouting, ‘Who wants life? I have an elixir of life.’
Rav Yanai, hearing this from his home became enthralled with the claim and signaled to the salesman from his window to come to his home.
The salesman refused to come, saying that what he has to sell is not for the Rav or his type. Rav Yanai’s curiosity leaves him no choice but to go out to the marketplace to see what is being sold. The salesman turns toward Rav Yanai and reads to him the verse in Tehilim, “Who is the man that desires life? He who guards his tongue from speaking evil.”
Rav Yanai listens carefully and comments that in all his years he had never understood the verse quite so simply.
Another story about Rav Yanai.
While walking in the market in Tzipori, Rav Yanai saw a well-dressed man who appeared to be a wealthy Torah scholar. Rav Yanai invited him into his home and prepared for him a festive meal. On attempting to have a scholarly Torah conversation with him, it became apparent that the guest knew no Torah at all. Rav Yanai, frustrated, asked him to lead the prayer after meals but the guest did not even know how to bentsch!
Rav Yanai exclaimed, rather bluntly, that ‘a dog had just eaten the bread of Yanai!’.
The man, embarrassed, accused Rav Yanai of possessing and withholding his inheritance and that he wants it returned. ‘I am holding your inheritance?!’ asked Yanai. The man explained, that he was once walking past a school and he heard the children singing, ‘The Torah was given to Moses as an Inheritance to the children of Yaakov.’ The children were not saying that it was an inheritance of Yanai! The Torah belongs to all the Jews. The man explained further, that he always yearned to study Torah, but the reason he was an ignoramus was that Rav Yanai refused to share his knowledge of Torah, which was in fact the inheritance of the whole of Kehillas Yaakov, with people like himself.
Rav Yanai then inquired into the man’s life wondering how he merited to eat at his table. The man explained that never in his life did he ever hear slander and pass it on. Furthermore, he said, he never saw two people quarrel where he didn’t try to make peace between them.
During the time of terrible decrees against our people we are humbled. But as G-d smiles upon his nation and the honor of our people returns, a feeling of elitism and even arrogance sets in. We can make the very Torah we are fighting for, unreachable to the masses. This was what happened in the generation following Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi. The generation where the honor of Torah was restored.
This was the message of the salesman in Tzipori; if you want life, if the Jewish people are to continue to strive, and if scholarship is to grow – we must never get carried away with ourselves, we must never become arrogant or elitist; and we must never think less of those less fortunate than us. We must all be able to drink from the potion of life.