There is a sure-fire way to become great, but it's not an easy path. The five steps to greatness are as follows:
1. One must be prepared to sacrifice comforts and personal amenities.
2. One must be prepared to march courageously along a different path than one's peers are taking.
3. One must be prepared to suffer disparagement and humiliation.
4. One must shun conformist attitudes of mediocre masses.
5. Finally, one must tenaciously pursue the truth.
As in a multiple choice test, if you can check "all of the above", then you can certainly look forward to greatness. The Gemara tells a beautiful story about a righteous convert who exemplified the all of the above five steps, and truly became great. His name was Onkeles.
Let me tell you the story of Onkeles the righteous convert.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the city of Beitar without mercy and cruelly executed the greatest leader of the generation, Rabbi Akiva. He was the Caesar who suppressed the Bar Kochba rebellion. But, even in the thickest darkness, there's always a ray of light and hope - Hadrian had a nephew named Onkeles the son of Klonimus.
Onkeles, was in line to become Caesar. He was a well-educated young man and an independent thinker with a probing mind that enabled him to realize the truth of Torah. He yearned for a chance to escape his royal family and live among the Jews, so he devised a plan. He approached his uncle to ask advice in acquiring wealth. Hadrian recommended that his nephew seek a highly marketable product with few customers. “You will be able to explain its real value and make a nice profit,” he promised.
That's just what Onkeles wanted to hear. He had already found a priceless commodity - Torah and emuna - which few people are capable of appreciating. So he set off to seek his fortune among the Jews. He immersed himself in learning, became a righteous convert - what we call a ger tzedek - and of the greatest Torah minds of all times. His Aramaic translation and commentary of Torah is called Targum, which is not only included in almost every Chumash, but is required weekly learning for every Jew.
At any rate, when Caesar Hadrian heard of his nephew's conversion, he was furious. The Gemara in tractate Avoda Zara 11a tells an amazing story. Hadrian sent an entire battalion of Roman soldiers to bring Onkeles back to Rome in chains, if necessary. Not only did they not succeed in their mission, but Onkeles spoke to their hearts with the wisdom of Torah and converted every single one of them. Hadrian flew into a rage and sent a second battalion to seize his nephew, warning them not to exchange a word with him, just to grab him and bring him home.
So when the second battalion grabbed Onkeles, he asked them, "If a captain is walking with a general at night, who holds the lamp?" The Roman soldiers answered, the captain, of course. He gives homage to a much higher ranking officer and lights the way for him. "Good," said Onkeles. "If a general is walking with the minister of defense at night, who holds the lamp?" In that case, the Roman soldiers agreed, since the general is subordinate to such a high-ranking minister, the general would hold the lamp. "Ah, wonderful," nodded Onkeles in approval of their answer. "Now, if the minister of defense is walking with Caesar at night, who holds the lamp?" They replied that the minister of defense would, naturally. "Yes, but with us Jews it's different - the Almighty King of Kings holds the lamp for us, for the Torah says that for forty years in the desert, Hashem illuminated the way for the Israelites..." When the second battalion heard that, they all converted to Judaism as well.
Caesar Hadrian reached his boiling point. He sent a third battalion of Rome's best fighters to seize Onkeles, warning them not to say anything to Onkeles or to listen to him. They arrested Onkeles and escorted him out of his house. Onkeles stopped by the mezuza at his front door, and put his hand on it. The Roman battalion commander asked what that was on the front doorpost. "A mezuza," answered Onkeles. "You know, a mortal flesh and blood king sits in his palace while the palace guards patrol outside the palace. But with us Jews, it's different; we sit in the comfort of our homes, while the Almighty King of Kings guards outside." Then and there, the soldiers of the third battalion all became converts too. Having lost three battalions, Hadrian didn't dare send a fourth.
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Anyone who fulfills the five steps to greatness will succeed big-time, even if he is considered the biggest underdog. Onkeles knew what he was doing and why. By virtue of his conviction, not even Caesar and three entire battalions could overcome him. What's more, Onkeles never threw a punch or fired a shot. His accomplishments were the result of his rock-solid emuna and conviction.
Just as we are all required to learn Onkeles's translation of Torah, we'd all be well-advised to walk in his footsteps, seeking truth and doing what's right, no matter what the cost. The reward is indescribable glory for posterity. You too can be great; I believe in you, but you must believe in yourself.
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