June 16, 2024
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June 16, 2024
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Why Some Choose To Be Religious and Others Do Not: Onkelos, Titus And the Long Short Road

Rav Nimrod Soll

What a fascinating conversation! This past summer I reviewed the eruv at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with the new OU-JLIC rabbi, Rav Nimrod Soll. As we conducted the very long walking inspection, I asked Rav Nimrod about his background, which seemed quite intriguing.

He explained that he was born in Israel to non-observant parents who decided to move the family to the United States to provide better care for Rav Nimrod’s brother, who is developmentally disabled. They settled in Rockaway, New Jersey, where the local Chabad rabbi befriended them and provided the family much-needed support to make the difficult adjustment.

The Chabad rabbi ensured that the young Nimrod would attend the Kushner Yeshiva elementary and high school, where he enjoyed the Torah and secular learning. Nimrod particularly loved Gemara learning and also really liked the rabbanim. He had such a very positive experience, he decided to become observant and even to become a rabbi. Currently, he and his wife Chana serve as the JLIC-OU rabbinic couple on the UICU campus to help Jewish students develop their Jewish identity during their college years.


The Question

I told Rav Soll that my path was somewhat similar. My parents were not fully observant when they enrolled me in the first grade of Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Rambam. However, I immensely enjoyed the Torah learning and connected with the rabbanim, most of whom had experienced the Mirrer Yeshiva’s harrowing odyssey from Lithuania to Japan and China during World War II. As a result, I also decided to become fully observant and eventually to become a rabbi.

Then came the question. Some of our classmates went through a similar experience and yet chose a very different path. Some of those who chose a life of non-observance even came from religious homes. Why did the yeshiva day school experience impact us positively, yet the sweet Torah learning and Torah personalities did not reach others?

I thought that if we could arrive at a compelling explanation we could “bottle” the success and enhance our impact on our students. But, unfortunately, while walking in the hot summer sun reviewing the eruv, we could not arrive at an explanation. Finally, however, early Shabbat morning of Parshat Nitzavim, I found an answer.


Onkelos and Titus

We can find an explanation by examining the incredible journey of Onkelos the Convert, the great translator of the Chumash into Aramaic. Onkelos was born into the Roman aristocracy and was even the nephew of the infamous Roman general Titus who destroyed and defiled the Beit Hamikdash most extremely.

As Onkelos contemplated joining the Jewish people, the Gemara (Gittin 56b) recounts that he decided to consult his mother’s brother Titus:

The Gemara relates: Onkelos bar Kalonikos, the son of Titus’s sister, wanted to convert to Judaism. He went and raised Titus from the grave through necromancy and said to him: Who is most important in that world where you are now? Titus said to him: The Jewish people. Onkelos asked him: Should I then attach myself to them here in this world? Titus said to him: Their commandments are numerous, and you will not fulfill them. Therefore, it is best that you do as follows: Go out and battle against them in that world, and you will become the chief, as it is written: “Her adversaries [tzareha] have become the chief” (Lamentations 1:5), which means: Anyone who distresses [meitzer] Israel will become the chief. Onkelos said to him: What is the punishment of that man, a euphemism for Titus himself, in the next world? Titus said to him: That which he decreed against himself, as he undergoes the following: Every day his ashes are gathered, and they judge him, and they burn him, and they scatter him over the seven seas. (William Davidson translation of the Talmud).

Onkelos recognized the unique character of the Jewish people and their Torah observance, even during the degradation we endured in the aftermath of the Churban. Even the evil Titus recognizes that the truth lies with the Torah and the Jewish people. So why, after Titus’ horrific suffering both in this world and the next, does Titus discourage his sister’s son, with whom there is naturally a powerful bond, from joining the Jewish people? The answer is that Titus convinces himself that although the Torah is true, it is impossible to observe.

Titus and those like him choose the illusionary path of short-term gain in this world since they think it is impossible to find their place with Hashem and Torah both in this and the next world. But, in reality, the path they choose is a dead end that leads to self-destruction.


Onkelos Chooses the Long-Short Road

Most interestingly, the Gemara does not explain why Onkelos spurns his uncle’s advice and chooses to become a stellar Jew. However, an answer lies in a fascinating episode recorded in Eruvin 53b regarding the great Rabi Yehoshua:

One time I was walking along the path, and I saw a young boy sitting at the crossroads. And I said to him: On which path shall we walk to get to the city? He said to me: This path is short and long, and that path is long and short. So I walked on the path that was short and long. When I approached the city I found that gardens and orchards surrounded it, and I could not get to the town. So I went back and met the young boy again and said to him: My son, didn’t you tell me that this way is short? He told me: And didn’t I tell you that it is also long? So I kissed him on his head and said to him: Happy are you, O Israel, for you are all exceedingly wise, from your old to your young (slightly modified William Davidson translation of the Talmud).

Onkelos rejected Titus’s advice since he witnessed Jews happily and steadfastly observing the Torah even in the darkest times. He saw that his uncle was wrong! It is very much possible to keep Hashem’s Torah! Onkelos realized the truth of Moshe Rabbeinu’s exhortation in Parshat Nitzavim that the Torah is not in the heavens; it is not on the other side of the sea; rather, it is very much close and within reach.

What was Titus’ mistake, pondered Onkelos. He realized that Titus chose the illusionary “short road” that gets him nowhere in the long run. Jews who happily adhere to Hashem’s prescription for the best life possible, Onkelos realizes, choose the long-short road. Thus, while Torah life on the surface appears “long,” in reality, it is the short road that leads us to a proper and wholesome destination.


Conclusion: The Choice We All Face

There is no magic formula to convince Jews to become more religious. However, excellent role models and attractive samples of Torah show that Titus is wrong. Observing the halacha is a happy task and is very much doable.

Everyone chooses whether to take the short and long road or the short and long road. There is, sadly, no shortage of negative role models (even family members) like Titus who prefer the illusionary short path. Our choice is to follow the minority who make the better choice to take the long and short way.

There will always be a large group of naysayers like the Meraglim who entice others with their deleterious dirge that “we are incapable of finding our place in the holy land.” However, their path, like that of the Meraglim, leads to ruin. Our challenge is to follow the healthy route of Kalev and Yehoshua, who internalize Moshe Rabbeinu’s heartening message that the Torah is close to us. Long, but close.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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