“And these are the statutes that you shall place before them.” – Shemos 21:1
The Das Zakainim teaches us that “before them” means before the Jews and not before the gentiles. The Torah is for the Jewish people exclusively.
He then brings an example of this concept. On the inside of almost every Chumash is the targum written by Onkelos. While Onkelos became a profound talmid chacham, that wasn’t his beginning. He was a gentile, the nephew of the Caesar Andriannas. He became aware of the truth and desired to convert to Judaism, but he was afraid of his uncle’s reaction.
He approached his uncle and said, “I wish to engage in commerce.”
His uncle responded, “If you need money, my treasure house is open to you. Take whatever you need.”
Onkelos responded, “It isn’t money I seek; it is knowledge. I wish to go out to discover the ways of the world. Please, my uncle, give me advice. What type of merchandise do you recommend that I invest in?”
Andriannas responded, “Find a commodity that is depressed in value. The ways of the world are cyclic. What is low now will rise later, and you will ride the crest upward and find your fortune.”
With that, Onkelos left to Israel and approached the Chachamim, seeking to learn Torah. They told him, “The Torah cannot be absorbed by one who isn’t Jewish.” He converted, went to yeshiva to learn, and became a talmid chacham.
At a certain point, he returned home, and his uncle noticed that his appearance had changed. “Why do you look different?” he asked.
Onkelos responded, “Because I converted and have learned Torah.”
“Upon whose advice did you do this?”
“Yours, my uncle. Didn’t you tell me to invest in merchandise that is currently depressed because surely it will rise? I searched and found no nation as downtrodden as the Jews. Yet in the World to Come, there is no people that will be as exalted.”
His uncle was so impressed with this line of reasoning that he promptly smacked him across the face. “You could have learned Torah without converting!” he exclaimed.
Onkelos responded, “Torah cannot be learned by one who doesn’t have a bris milah.”
While this is a beautiful story, when we take into account two points a powerful question emerges.
1. We are dealing with a man who is clearly brilliant. Once he converted, he became such a master of the Torah that he was able to distill all its wisdom into a concise targum that has become universally accepted throughout the generations.
2. We are dealing with an extremely motivated individual. He was living in the lap of luxury, enjoying great power and prestige, and had the entire world open to him. He was a favored nephew of the most powerful emperor of his time. When he approached his uncle for help, his immediate response was, “My treasure house is open to you.” In simple terms, he had everything a young man could dream of. Yet he was willing to give it all up, at risk of his position and maybe even his life, to go to a foreign land to learn Torah. Clearly he was a driven individual.
With all this, why couldn’t he learn Torah without converting?
The answer to this lies in understanding the nature of Torah. The Torah is pure wisdom from Hashem. A Rashi on Chumash can be understood by an eight-year-old child. Yet that same Rashi contains worlds of depth and opens up to understandings that are infinite. Any human being can study geometry, physics, or business law. The Torah is different. A Jew is uniquely suited to learn Torah, to be able to plumb it depths, and to reach the Divine wisdom contained in it. But more than simply the ability to learn Torah, we were given a tremendous receptivity to it.
This seems to be the answer to the question. As wise and as motivated as Onkelos was, he could never have mastered the Torah had he not become a Jew.
This concept is very relevant to us because the Torah contains all the wisdom of the world. There may be times we feel overwhelmed by the challenge. But the understanding that the Torah is our exclusive heritage and that we are uniquely suited to learn it should be a motivating force to help us set goals of mastering our portion in Torah.