Chazal tell us there are three crowns in the universe: the crown of malchus, the crown of kehuna and the crown of Torah. The crown of malchus is not open to every man; it is handed down from the king to his son. And while the crown of the kehuna is only for those of the family of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the crown of Torah is free for each and every man to wear.
Every person, be he the son of a rav or the son of the humblest and most ignorant individual can, if he desires and works diligently at it, become a great scholar and put the magnificent crown of Torah on his very own head.
Indeed, this is the story of a man who became a great Tanna and whose father was not a great scholar; in fact he wasn’t even Jewish! It is the story of the great Onkelos, whose interpretation of the Torah every Jew is obligated to learn on a weekly basis.
In the days immediately following the destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash, the ruler of Rome was the wicked Hadrian, who defeated and wiped out the army of Bar Kochba.
This evil man had a sister, who had a son named Onkelos. He lacked for nothing materialistic and could have lived the rest of his life, had he chosen to, in the luxury and laziness that dominated the Roman upper class life.
Onkelos, however, was unhappy. Something within his soul told him that his life was empty and lacking in the important things that make one’s existence meaningful. He began to research all the wisdoms and philosophies of the world, searching for an answer that seemed to elude him.
During his search, he was introduced to Judaism and it was as if a great light had been lit across his path. Excitedly he devoured the books and listened to the words of the Jewish scholars whom he engaged in conversation. Finally, he was convinced that this was the Truth for which he had been looking. He decided to become a Jew.
He approached his uncle Hadrian and told him of his choice.
The emperor could not believe his ears.
“What! You – a member of the royal house of Rome – embracing Judaism? There is no more miserable people alive, none more persecuted, than this race. Do not be a fool and sacrifice your noble past and glorious future.”
Onkelos, however, had thought very carefully about this great decision and nothing could persuade him to change his mind.
“I, too, am surprised, my uncle,” he said. “How can you call this noble race by such names? They are truly a wise and brilliant people. Even the youngest among them knows that the Almighty created the heavens and the earth and that He alone rules and moves all.”
Hadrian, seeing that his nephew was convinced, said:
“If so, let me advise you to go and study their Torah but do not enter into their covenant.”
“That is impossible. No one can understand and draw fully the greatness from their Torah unless he both learns it and also observes it.”
Hadrian was angry.
“I warn you. If you go through with your insane plan to become a Jew, your end will be sad and bitter.”
Onkelos then asked Hadrian for advice.
“Tell me, what is the merchandise that will bring me the greatest profit?”
“Seek for yourself,” said Hadrian, “that merchandise which few people are interested in selling. If you buy that, you will realize a great profit from your venture.”
“That product that men despise is the one to go after and acquire. I shall therefore go after the Torah and to the Lord. For it is this product that few seek and most of the masses of the world despise. I, however, shall go after it and realize from it great spiritual wealth.”
Upon his arrival in Eretz Yisrael, he went directly to the yeshiva of Rabi Eliezer and Rabi Yehoshua.
“My masters,” he said, “I have come from Rome and am of the royal household. I have decided to become a Jew and desire to learn Torah.”
The two scholars began to teach him Torah and were amazed at the brilliance of his mind and the diligence of his soul. Soon he took his place among the scholars of Israel.
In those days, few of the common people spoke or understood Hebrew. Because of this, the Chumash was foreign to most.
Onkelos decided to translate the Torah into Aramaic, the language most of the people spoke, so that everyone would have the opportunity to learn Torah.
Chazal were so impressed with its clarity they decreed that every week one should review the parsha: twice in the original text and once with the translation of Onkelos.
Hadrian Sends An Army
Back in Rome, Hadrian’s anger knew no bounds and he ordered a battalion to go to Judea and bring Onkelos homes.
When the troops arrived, Onkelos met with them and proceeded to describe the beauty and truth of Judaism. So well did he speak that he convinced all the soldiers to become Jews.
Hadrian sent another battalion. However, the same thing happened again.
Hadrian gathered a third battalion and warned them: “When you see Onkelos, do not listen to his attempt to convert you.”
When the troops appeared before Onkelos, he said: “I know that the emperor has warned you not to listen to me, but at least answer one question that has bothered me very much.”
When the troops agreed to listen to just one question, Onkelos said: “We all know that when the lieutenant goes out at night, the sergeant carries a torch to light his way. Similarly, the lieutenant holds the torch for the captain and the captain for the general. The general in turn holds it for the emperor. For whom, however, does the emperor hold the torch?”
They had no answer.
“Just so,” replied Onkelos. “There is no greater being than the emperor, and therefore he holds a torch for no one.
“When the Almighty took the Jews from the land of Egypt, it was He, Himself, who lit the path for His people, as the Torah states: ‘And the Lord goes before them in the day in a cloud to guide them and at night in a pillar of fire…’”
When the Romans heard this, they said to themselves:
“It is true. This proves how great are the people of Israel. Let us, too, become a part of this noble race.”