This week, as we had the commandment of the Mitzva of Mezuzah written in our weekly Portion, we will tell the tale of the Mezuza that affected an entire Roman battalion.
Within the Roman royal family was a sensitive and deep thinking young man. His uncle was the mighty Emperor and this favorite nephew stood a good chance of taking the place at the helm of the world-power Roman Empire upon the death of his uncle. But this young man realized that we are only in this world temporarily. Sure you can be a Bloomberg, Soros, Titus or Hadrian. But no one outlives death unless decreed by G-d, no matter how rich and powerful a person you might be. So this young man decided to figure out what happens AFTER death. Being a Roman and surrounded by idol worship, he first did his investigation in ways we Jews usually don’t employ. He held séances and asked to speak to some of the Jews’ worst enemies.
‘Why’d he pick the Jews and their enemies,’ you might ask. And a good question it is, but it seems that every deep philosopher will eventually have to grapple with the eternity and the perseverance of the Jewish nation and its beliefs. Go through the generations and hundreds of thinkers and you will see that all of them, if honest with themselves, will eventually ask, “what is the secret to Jewish ___?” That blank can sometimes be, as in the case of Mark Twain, to question Jewish immortality. Some will question their success. Some will question their belief. But question it, they will.
So our Roman philosopher, Onkelos was his name, questioned the Jewish enemies. What became of them when all was done, for the Jews were still around. The three he questioned were: an apostate who tried to change the Jewish belief system (and still the Jews cling to Toras Moshe), the bad prophet who tried to pray and curse the Jews (but his mouth spewed out blessings and praises instead) and the Roman Emperor who had proclaimed Judea Captiva (while the Jewish nation continued serving G-d and not Roman deities). What those three said in the séances are a matter of conjecture for you and me, but they did not report back that life was good in the hereinafter for them.
Hearing that there was not a good outcome for those who hated Jews and Judaism, Onkelos delved into the nuances and details of what constitutes Judaism. He became enamored with the moral and upright Torah, and decided to convert. Yet, he knew he would be liable for the death penalty were he do so without some solid plan. He decided to get the Roman Emperor himself to tell him to convert.
What did he do? Onkelos went to his uncle. “Esteemed and wise uncle,” he said in a flattering way, “I’d like to go into business and need some solid advice how to do some really smart investing.” Ah, Friends of Belz who are businessmen, you’d applaud at the Emperor’s wisdom, for he said, “Buy something valuable that is priced low now and that you know its stock will go up. That way, you’ll make a profit.” Onkelos thanked his uncle warmly and traveled far away to convert to Judaism.
It took a while until his uncle heard the news. Furious at his nephew for he considered this betrayal, the Roman Emperor sent a troop of soldiers to haul Onkelos to Rome to stand trial. Onkelos, however, sat and debated with the troop of soldiers, explaining clearly and lucidly why Judaism was the right path. So impressed were these soldiers that they defected from the army, ran and hid, and all converted to Judaism.
The Emperor sent a second platoon, these not as educated as the first so that philosophical debates would be hard for them. This way, he reasoned, all the platitudes of his nephew’s search for meaning would go soaring above the comprehension of these simpler folks. Yet, Onkelos found a way to reach the hearts of these soldiers. He explained how G-d had led the Jews out of Egypt with a flame of fire in front of them. He explained how being soldiers in his uncle’s army was not that glorious, for they were forced to carry a torch for the Emperor…while the Jews had a ruler who held a torch for them. The second platoon soldiers defected from Rome, ran far away and converted to Judaism.
Trying again, the Emperor sent a third battalion of soldiers. These were told to take no rest. They were to stride into Onkelos’ home, grab him, and haul him out with no discussions. And so it was. They grabbed him and pulled him, telling him to “Shut up”. Yet, they were curious when, as they dragged him out, he stopped to reach up a hand and kiss some box on his doorway. “What is that?” they asked. This is when Onkelos told them the beauty of the mitzvah of Mezuzah. Whereas soldiers stand outside the Emperor’s room and guard him, G-d tells Jews to affix His name to their doors to guard them. Yup, you know what happened then. This third cadre of Roman soldiers realized that allegiance to mere flesh and blood was overrated. Serving G-d, the Creator of the world is service indeed, and they, too, converted to Judaism.