Torah and Teshuva:
The Great Equalizers

Picture of Rabbi Pinchas Landis

Rabbi Pinchas Landis

Rabbi Pinchas Landis is a motivational speaker, author, educator, barstool historian and entrepreneur that is committed to helping people from all walks of life live the life they want to live instead of accepting the one that happens to them. He is the executive director of Partners Cleveland, an Ohio-based non-profit educational organization with a mission to inspire the Jewish community through Torah study. He is also the director of JewishAnytime, a robust digital learning platform for curious Jews. He is a featured speaker on TorahAnytime.com, an author on Aish.com, and has several podcasts on JewCast.com. His first book, Today In Jewish History, will be released in the coming year.

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"With patience far more than any mortal man will ever understand, the Almighty gave the Jewish People every chance possible to correct their ways and to wake them up.  Alas, our obstinance won out and it was necessary to destroy the Temple and to send us into the Babylonian exile. If you didn’t know anything about Jewish history, you might think that would be enough of a wake-up call for the nation of Israel; but we all know the opposite is true."

Shmaya and Avtalyon

The famous converts Shmaya and Avtalyon, who lived around the middle of the first century BCE, were converts to Judaism and descended from Sancheriv, the Assyrian Emperor who is credited with conquering the Northern Kingdom of Israel and exiling 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel in 556 BCE. Shmaya became the Nasi or President of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, and Avtalyon became the Av Beis Din, or presiding Head Judge. Together, they were the most prominent spiritual leaders of Israel at that time.

Here are two men of royal lineage who not only leave the comforts of their upbringing to embrace Judaism at a tumultuous time, but reach the greatest heights of the scholars of the generation. Shmaya and Avtalyon were the teachers of the great Hillel the Elder, one of the most famous rabbis of the Mishna. 

Nero the Roman Emperor

At the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 CE, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known simply as Nero, was the Emperor of Rome. It was he who sent Vespasian to put down the Jewish Revolt who, together with his son Titus, eventually conquered the country and destroyed the Second Temple.

The Talmud teaches that Nero came to Jerusalem during the war. In an attempt to see if fate would be on his side, he shot arrows in all four directions. All landed facing Jerusalem. In an attempt to explore further, he asked a Jewish child what verse in the Jewish Bible he was learning. The child responded by quoting the book of Ezekiel “And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom (Rome) by the hand of My people Israel.”

Nero concluded: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, wishes to destroy His Temple, and to wipe His hands with that man.” (referring to himself). Nero was so inspired by this pseudo-prophecy that he ultimately converted to Judaism. The great Rebbe Meir, whom much of the Mishnah is based on, is his descendent.

Rabbi Akiva

The great Rabbi Akiva, one of the most famous Rabbis of Mishnaic times, was born around 50 years before the destruction of the Second Temple (cir. 20 CE). Rabbi Akiva’s father, Yosef, was a convert to Judaism. He was descended from Sisera, the great Canaanite General who tormented the Jewish people at the end of the second Millennium BCE and was finally subdued by Devora and Barak in 1087 BCE. 

What is most remarkable about Rabbi Akiva, is that he was an ignoramus until the age of 40, when he started studying and through hard work and dedication, he became one of the greatest Torah scholars and teachers of the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva subsequently lost his entire academy of 24,000 students, yet did not give up. At the end of his life, he rebuilt everything with five students before being brutally assassinated by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba Revolt.

Onkelos

The Midrash Tanchuma tells the incredible and compelling story of Onkelos, a convert who was the nephew of Hadrian, the Roman Emperor (referred to above who is infamous in Jewish history for the Bar Kochba War and subsequent anti-Torah decrees and bloodshed). When Onkelos decided to convert to Judaism, he feared his uncle’s wrath. As a pretext, he told his uncle that he wanted to travel to foreign lands to engage in business. Hadrian gave his nephew the age-old advice to “buy low and sell high.”

Onkelos then traveled to Israel to study Torah. After his conversion, he was asked by his uncle on whose advice he had done such a foolish thing. Onkelos responded that it was indeed the advice of his great uncle that motivated his conversion. For there was no nation at that point as lowly as Israel. Surely their stock was destined to rise!

Hadrian sent a number of troops after Onkelos, but the newly minted scholar successfully convinced them all to convert to Judaism and the emperor stopped trying to bring his wayward nephew back. 

Onkelos went on to reestablish the ancient Aramaic interpretative translation of the Torah that now appears on the side of almost every Bible and is known as Targum Onkelos, Onkelos’ translation.

The Return To Torah: An Eternal Guarantee



Stiff-Necked Nation:
Stubborn or Resilient?

Dissent and rebellion within the Jewish people is not a new thing; in fact, it goes back to the very inception of our nation. Just 40 days after the mass revelation at Mount Sinai, when every Jew was raised to the level of Prophecy, several Jews participated in the Golden Calf.

At the time, the Almighty wanted to wipe out the Jews and start over with Moshe, not because they were involved in idol worship, but rather because they were an Am K’shei Oref – a stiff-necked nation.  

Since time immemorial, this has been both our blessing and our curse.  On one hand, it is one of the national traits that has helped us stand up to the long list of tormentors in our history, and not be swayed.  On the other hand, it has caused us so much trouble with our leaders and with Hashem.

Those who survived the Golden Calf continued to bombard Moshe in the desert, from complaining about the food offerings on the menu to out-and-out mutiny, first with Korach and then the spies. 

Entering the land of Israel did not change things. While most stayed true to the Torah, there were always notable groups that rebelled against the Torah and gave in to the temptation to worship idols.  

With patience far more than any mortal man will ever understand, the Almighty gave the Jewish People every chance possible to correct their ways and to wake them up.  Alas, our obstinance won out and it was necessary to destroy the Temple and to send us into the Babylonian exile. If you didn’t know anything about Jewish history, you might think that would be enough of a wake-up call for the nation of Israel; but we all know the opposite is true.

The Original Sin And
T
he Roots of Rebellion

King Solomon (and the Talmud) describe the Torah as the “Tree of Life”:

“She (the Torah) is a Tree of Life to those who embrace her.” (Proverbs 3:18, Vayikra Rabba 25:1)

We learn in the first chapter of Beraishit that Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Since we know that the Torah is a book of instructions for living, one may ask why it is called the Tree of Life and not the Tree of Knowledge.

The Midrash teaches us that God’s plan in Eden was for man to eat from the Tree of Life (the Tree of Torah Wisdom), and only thereafter, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (the Tree of Experience).

The reason why Torah wisdom must precede experience is so that once it is internalized, Torah will serve as the foundation from which all subsequent experience will be interpreted. Simply put, Torah becomes the lens through which experiences are viewed and understood. When Torah precedes experience, Torah becomes the benchmark by which Jews lead their lives.

The Golden Calf And
The First Yom Kippur

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Shemot 32:1)

The Jews were awaiting the descent of Moses with the Torah, but since it took longer than they expected, they didn’t “know” where Moses was. They end up feasting chaotically and creating the golden calf and worshipping it instead of receiving the Torah from God via Moses. They lost faith in Moshe because they wanted to “know” that which they could not, and once again the Tree of Knowledge (experience) is chosen over the Tree of Life (Torah).

On Yom Kippur, Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of the Ten Commandments, and it was the day the Jews were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf and they ultimately accepted the Torah. On this day we do not eat, drink, or wash, in order to rectify the sin of the Golden Calf and the “festivities” that followed.

Since the sin of the Golden Calf was the choice of experience prior to Torah, our forgiveness on Yom Kippur is brought about by total abstention from earthly experiences, total immersion in spirituality, and by doing teshuva, returning to Hashem by accepting His Torah.

On Yom Kippur we are given the ultimate opportunity to do teshuva and renew our Divine Covenant, placing the wisdom of Torah before the temptation of experience. 

Teshuva and Torah:
An Eternal Guarantee

Yom Kippur means ‘Day of Atonement’. It is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It is the culmination of the High Holidays, and is a day of repentance and introspection. The Talmud stresses the importance of repentance, as do the prophets. But, this concept of teshuva is rooted in the Torah’s words:

Moshe tells the Jewish people in his last days:

“When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which Hashem has banished you, and you return to Hashem, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then Hashem will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where Hashem has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there Hashem will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And Hashem will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it, and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers.” (Devarim 30: 1-5)

Throughout history, there have been many dissenters and many rebellions. However, the Torah promises that even when God banishes us to the four corners of the earth because we abandon the Torah and do not heed the words of Moshe, God does not abandon us. If we return to Him and to a righteous path, faithfully study His Torah and listen to His commandments, we will be forgiven. He will save us, and preserved in exile, we will merit the return to our ancestral homeland. This is our eternal guarantee.

Roman Converts: 
Torah Scholars Who Proved Judaism Is A Meritocracy

In the first century of the Common Era, upwards of 10% of the Roman empire was Jewish with anywhere from 2 to 7 million Jews. This is quite remarkable. This is quite remarkable. In comparison, consider the United States today where the Jewish community yields tremendous influence, yet only 2.4% of the country’s adults are Jews. The percentages of the Roman Empire were significantly greater.

If we look at the number of Jews in the world at the onset of the Babylonian Exile in 423 BCE. we uncover something startling. Best estimates put the world Jewish population at that time at well under a quarter of a million. In a span of half a millennium, the Jewish people went from being close to extinction to being a force to reckon with in the Roman Empire.

What could account for such a population explosion?

These were tumultuous times for the Jews. After the success of the Maccabees in the Chanukah battles, the war with the Greeks went on for 25 more years. This was followed by several civil wars among the Jews, culminating in three major wars with the Romans. It was a time of a lot of Jewish bloodshed. Yet the numbers rose astronomically. Why?

Through mostly circumstantial evidence, scholars concluded that there was mass conversion to Judaism in the Roman empire at this time. According to some accounts, there were large numbers of converts reaching the millions, thus accounting for a sizable portion of the population of the Early Roman Empire. 

There is no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that points to the Jewish community at this time proselytizing. How, then are we to understand such a rapid rise in the Jewish population through conversion, without an active recruitment effort on the part of the Jewish community?

At the beginning of the Second Commonwealth, the Anshei Knesses HaGedola, the supreme religious body of the newly reconstituted nation, convened to discuss solutions to the problems that had plagued the First Commonwealth. One of those problems was Avoda Zara, or polytheism and idol worship.  The members of the Anshei Kenesses HaGedola fasted and prayed for three days that the inclination towards such activities should be eradicated, and their prayers were answered.

From this point forward in history, the world made a slow movement away from polytheism, which prior to this time had dominated virtually everywhere in the world. Thus, the populace in Rome soon became keenly aware that idols of wood and stone held no sway over the world. The innate drive of the individual to find an authentic spiritual connection left many throughout the empire with a gaping void. They began to search, and many who found the satiating waters of Judaism ultimately converted.

Before this point, there were very few mentions of converts to Judaism. From this point until the end of the Roman Empire, there are a plethora of examples, often from the aristocracy. The following is a short list of some of the most famous amongst them.

The legacy of these righteous converts and their great accomplishments in Torah study teaches us a fundamental principle: Jewish leadership is a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter what a person’s beginnings are, with hard work and dedication, they can achieve anything in Jewish scholarship.

Shmaya and Avtalyon

The famous converts Shmaya and Avtalyon, who lived around the middle of the first century BCE, were converts to Judaism and descended from Sancheriv, the Assyrian Emperor who is credited with conquering the Northern Kingdom of Israel and exiling 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel in 556 BCE. Shmaya became the Nasi or President of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, and Avtalyon became the Av Beis Din, or presiding Head Judge. Together, they were the most prominent spiritual leaders of Israel at that time.

Here are two men of royal lineage who not only leave the comforts of their upbringing to embrace Judaism at a tumultuous time, but reach the greatest heights of the scholars of the generation. Shmaya and Avtalyon were the teachers of the great Hillel the Elder, one of the most famous rabbis of the Mishna. 

Nero the Roman Emperor

At the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 CE, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known simply as Nero, was the Emperor of Rome. It was he who sent Vespasian to put down the Jewish Revolt who, together with his son Titus, eventually conquered the country and destroyed the Second Temple.

The Talmud teaches that Nero came to Jerusalem during the war. In an attempt to see if fate would be on his side, he shot arrows in all four directions. All landed facing Jerusalem. In an attempt to explore further, he asked a Jewish child what verse in the Jewish Bible he was learning. The child responded by quoting the book of Ezekiel “And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom (Rome) by the hand of My people Israel.”

Nero concluded: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, wishes to destroy His Temple, and to wipe His hands with that man.” (referring to himself). Nero was so inspired by this pseudo-prophecy that he ultimately converted to Judaism. The great Rebbe Meir, whom much of the Mishnah is based on, is his descendent.

Rabbi Akiva

The great Rabbi Akiva, one of the most famous Rabbis of Mishnaic times, was born around 50 years before the destruction of the Second Temple (cir. 20 CE). Rabbi Akiva’s father, Yosef, was a convert to Judaism. He was descended from Sisera, the great Canaanite General who tormented the Jewish people at the end of the second Millennium BCE and was finally subdued by Devora and Barak in 1087 BCE. 

What is most remarkable about Rabbi Akiva, is that he was an ignoramus until the age of 40, when he started studying and through hard work and dedication, he became one of the greatest Torah scholars and teachers of the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Akiva subsequently lost his entire academy of 24,000 students, yet did not give up. At the end of his life, he rebuilt everything with five students before being brutally assassinated by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba Revolt.

Onkelos

The Midrash Tanchuma tells the incredible and compelling story of Onkelos, a convert who was the nephew of Hadrian, the Roman Emperor (referred to above who is infamous in Jewish history for the Bar Kochba War and subsequent anti-Torah decrees and bloodshed). When Onkelos decided to convert to Judaism, he feared his uncle’s wrath. As a pretext, he told his uncle that he wanted to travel to foreign lands to engage in business. Hadrian gave his nephew the age-old advice to “buy low and sell high.”

Onkelos then traveled to Israel to study Torah. After his conversion, he was asked by his uncle on whose advice he had done such a foolish thing. Onkelos responded that it was indeed the advice of his great uncle that motivated his conversion. For there was no nation at that point as lowly as Israel. Surely their stock was destined to rise!

Hadrian sent a number of troops after Onkelos, but the newly minted scholar successfully convinced them all to convert to Judaism and the emperor stopped trying to bring his wayward nephew back. 

Onkelos went on to reestablish the ancient Aramaic interpretative translation of the Torah that now appears on the side of almost every Bible and is known as Targum Onkelos, Onkelos’ translation.

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