You are reading the Beshalach Dvar Torah from 2009/5769. You can also visit the current Dvar Torah for Parshat Beshalach

Dvar Torah on Parshat Beshalach

Parashat Hashavua Beshalach 2009 / 5769 - Onkeles and the Legionnaires

10.02.2009 by

There is a remarkable story in the Talmud, in Tractate Avodah Zara(Idol Worship - it deals with the laws of idolatry) about Onkelos the son of Kalonymus (c.35-120) - it's on page 11a if you'd like to see it. Onkelos lived in Rome. He was a nephew of the Emperor Titus, who put down the Jewish Revolt and destroyed the Second Temple; he celebrated these events back in Rome, by building the Arch of Titus and the Coliseum. Onkelos converted to Judaism (a story in itself), which the Roman establishment did not like one bit. The emperor (not Titus, he was dead already) sent a legion to arrest Onkelos and bring him before him for disciplining.

When they got there, Onkeles, using Biblical verses, convinced them all to convert to Judaism (sadly, which verses he used is not recorded). Caesar then sent another legion to arrest him, instructing them this time to not talk with Onkelos. While they were taking him into custody, he asked if he might speak to them of every-day matters, not Torah. They agreed, and he asked them the following question: "The torchbearer carries a torch before the elder, who carries a torch before the duke, who carries a torch before the governor, who carries a torch before the king. Does the king carry a torch before anyone?" They answered him - "No". He said to them, "And yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, carried a torch before Israel, as it says [in thisweek's parsha, B'shalach, just after the exodus from Egypt]: 'And God walked before them during the day in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way, and at night in a pillar of fire as a light for them...'". When they heard this, they all converted to Judaism as well. The Emperor then sent yet another legion, and told them not to converse with Onkeleos at all. As they were taking him to the emperor, he saw a mezuzah on the door, touched it, and asked the soldiers if they knew what it was. They said they did not, and asked him to tell them. He said: "It is the way of the world for a flesh and blood king to sit indoors, while his servants guard him from without, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, is different; His servants are inside while he guards them from without, as it is written, 'God will protect your comings and goings from now and forever'" [a verse from Psalms understood here as a reference to the mezuzah as a symbol of God's protection when one exits or enters one's home]. They all also converted, and the emperor stopped sending his men to arrest Onkelos.

This really is some story. Since it is, ultimately, about mass conversion, I think it should be understood as presenting us with a central concept of Judaism, as if to say: this is why one should be Jewish, this is what Judaism is all about. Looked at that way, the central message is inescapable, and remarkable. Onkelos is talking to a Roman legion, a quintessential symbol and instrument of Roman order, rank, and privilege, and of its military and political power. Why the Emperor is so put off by Onkelos's conversion that he sends a brigade to arrest him may not be clear at the start of the story, but it certainly becomes obvious once Onkelos starts talking: his description of a highly stratified Roman society, in which there is a clear hierarchy of who serves whom, each with his title and concomitant entitlements, is vividly played off against a Jewish world where all are equally under the benevolent protection of the one God. This perspective subverts the values which are the very foundation of Roman life, and which, we now understand, the Roman Emperor sent his legions to uphold - hierarchy, title, rank, service, and order.

The remarkable and revolutionary point Onkelos makes with his two examples- the Pillars of cloud and fire in the desert and the mezuzah on the doorposts of Jewish homes - is that Judaism takes a position against the 'normal' order of things, in which the weak and the poor naturally and inexorably serve the strong and powerful, who, in turn, serve those who are even stronger and more powerful. Instead, it substitutes a value system in which God himself, the King of Kings - or, perhaps more correctly, the only king - serves His people, upending the hierarchical world view of Rome. In the Jewish worldview, high rank, truly possessed only by God, is a responsibility, in that it seems to demand an ethic of service towards those less fortunate, less powerful, and less able to take care of themselves. Instead of a world where it is understood as right and proper for the strong, the rich, and the well-born to take advantage of the weak, and deserve, as something taken for granted, their service, Onkelos presents a world turned upside down, in which God Himself serves His subjects.

The fact that, once they convert, the soldiers seem to go AWOL, and disappear into the Jewish community, is remarkable as well. It is as if the story is saying that becoming a Jew will free one of the burden of servitude which is the norm in Roman life - become Jewish and free yourself from the weight of service to Rome and its hierarchies. By joining the egalitarian Jewish society, one escapes the hierarchical Roman one - an offer that no Roman Legionnaire, it would seem, could resist.

The implications for the way we order our societies, the way those of us with wealth and power behave towards those without, and ourattitudes towards Roman-style hierarchies of rank and privilege, are profound.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Judaism takes a position against the 'normal' order of things, in which the weak and the poor naturally and inexorably serve the strong and powerfulRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Beshalach


In Beshalach, the Israelites are trapped between the oncoming Egyptians, who regret having freed them, and the Reed Sea. The sea splits, the Egyptians are drowned, and the nation begins its journey to the Promised Land of Israel.

Previous Divrei Torah For Parsha Beshalach
Get inspired by Beshalach Divrei Torah from previous years

About Us

Every week, brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...

Read more on Parsha of the Week