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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Jerusalem Study Programs

I am the educational director of our local JCC and I often get requests for information about Jewish study programs in Jerusalem. Do you have a comprehensive list that you can send me?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I don’t know if this is a comprehensive list, but it’s a good start:

For beginners, perhaps the best educational program in Jerusalem is "Essentials" run by Aish HaTorah. It is directed for men in their 20s. Nevertheless, anyone is welcome to drop in and take a class. http://israel.aish.com/essentials/ There is also comparable women's program called "Jewel" – www.jewel4women.com/.

And of course the world-famous Discovery seminar is offered regularly in Jerusalem – www.aish.com/dis/

For men over 35, check out Bircas HaTorah – www.bircas.org/, or Tsama Nafshi – yeshivattsamanafshi.com/.

For women over 35, check out Eyaht – http://aish.com/progsisrael/, or She'arim – www.shearim.com.

Aish’s Executive Learning Center (ELC) offers a personalized curriculum to explore political, spiritual and personal issues, where one can also get a quantum leap in their Hebrew/Jewish textual skills. Hundreds of visitors to Jerusalem enhance their Israel experience with a tailor-made learning schedule – for an hour, a day, a week. Get more info online at: www.aish.com/elc/

For a place to stay, try the Heritage House Jewish Youth Hostel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, close to the Western Wall. It's ideal for young Jewish men and women while touring Israel – and it's free! Go to www.heritage.org.il/

History of Palestine

I'm a bit confused about the term "Palestine." Today everyone uses it to refer to Arabs, but my grandfather played in Palestine Symphony Orchestra which changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when the Jewish state came into being in 1948.

So what's the scoop on "Palestine"?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In the year 70 CE the Romans burned down the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, murdering and exiling the Jews of Jerusalem. Following an unsuccessful revolt against Rome in 135 CE, the Roman emperor Hadrian decided to excise all things Jewish from the promised land. Jerusalem was renamed "Aelia Capitolina" and the penalty for any Jew daring to venture into the city was death. In addition, an idol to the pagan god Jupiter was erected in the remains of the Temple.

Further, Hadrian asked his historians who were the worst enemies of the Jews. The scribes said, "The ancient Philistines who vanished half a millennium prior." It was thus declared that Land of Israel would from then on be called "Philistia" to dishonor the Jews and obliterate their history. Hence the name "Palestine."

For the next 2,000 years, Israel remained at the forefront of Jewish consciousness. Jews always maintained a presence in Israel, and prayed to return en masse.

The rhetoric about a massive Arab presence being overrun by "invading Jews" is dispelled by Mark Twain, who visited the area in 1867 and wrote in his book, "The Innocents Abroad":

"We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse... We never saw a human being on the whole route... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

The vast majority of Arabs came to Israel after the early Zionists pioneers began to rebuild the land, thereby creating modern infrastructure and economic opportunities, which attracted Arabs from both surrounding territories and far-away Arab lands.

At the time, Jewish residents of Palestine were considered "Palestinians," whereby the Arabs were officially referred to as Arabs. The "Jerusalem Post" newspaper was called the "Palestine Post," and the Jewish Agency-issued postage stamps read "Palestine." As far as the Arabs were concerned no political entity called Palestine existed.

But that is all past history. The Arabs, in their decades-long war against Israel's very existence, have succeeded in convincing the world of a Palestinian Arab identity deserving of their own state. So that's the reality today, and we are trying to deal with it in a way that satisfies both world opinion and the security requirements of the citizens of Israel.

Star Wars’ Jewish Themes?

I recently watched an old Star Wars film and couldn't help but think about the spiritual undertones throughout the movie: the Force, the Dark Side, Jedi Knights and Lightsabers. What's the Jewish perspective on all this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

While there is no comparison between the fantasy of technicolor and the reality of life, some have suggested a few Jewish ideas reflected metaphorically in the film series:

The Force is the ultimate power of the universe: God. The Jedi Knight strives to perfect his awareness that God is constantly watching and teaching us through the events of life. Walking with God is the highest utilization of the power of the intellect. With Lightsaber in hand, the Jedi never allows his mind to lose focus of the message the Almighty seeks to convey.

Jedi master Yoda teaches a wisdom that is both simple and profound. The Jedi clears away previously-learned layers of untruth, connecting with his internal compass. This opens the fountains of innate goodness and releases flow from the Light Side.

The Jedi learns that every bit of desire to go against God creates distance. Nothing is more precious than closeness to God, and every character flaw is treated as an intruder trying to break that relationship. The master demands such flaws be squelched with vengeance.

The Jedi is devoted to the Force because God has all the right connections. He can cure disease. He can lift financial burdens. He can arrange it all. If you know the Force is always with you, that's living with ultimate power. If you forget, then God has to focus you again – by breaking the flow.

Why do we lose our focus on reality? The Dark Side comes to confuse us.

Every human is composed of two parts – body and soul. The body seeks temporal pleasures of honor, food, lust. The soul seeks deeper eternal pleasures: love, meaning, connection.

The Jedi knows that while physical pleasure is an essential part of life, it is only a steppingstone to the higher pleasures. True freedom is the ability to put the soul in control. By making the choice of soul over body, we harness the galaxy and become one with the Force.

The Sith Warrior chooses a different path. Seduced by greed and power, he follows the temptations of the Dark Side. Judaism calls this the Yetzer Hara – the self-destructive bodily forces that pull us away from God.

The Dark Side gives an illusion of victory. But behind the black body armor, Darth Vader's reign of terror is a sad phantasm. His manipulations ultimately destroy lives, society, self.

At every step, God tests our discipline and determination. A Jedi Knight must be strong in conviction and cannot doubt. He must be certain that the Force is with him.

We attain this confidence through knowledge, not faith. God knows that through sincere investigation, His existence is abundantly clear. We observe the wonders of nature. We cry out and are rescued from difficulty. In our own way, we have seen seas split and mountains move.

Every human longs for the transcendental. The Jedi strives to lift into oneness with God – to share in His power.

In the end, the battle between good and evil is played out within each of us. Our challenge is to resist the temptations of the Dark Side – and with the help of God, become a master of self.

Having said all this, it should be emphasized that some symbolism in Star Wars more closely resembles the cosmogonic dualism of Zoroastrianism (reflected in Christian theology) – where good and evil are seen as competing and independent powers battling over the domain of creation. Judaism, of course, sees everything as emanating from a single Creator. This includes evil which has no independent will of its own to oppose God, but is under His domain and sent to awaken us to our own shortcomings.

In other ways, the Force has taken on Christian overtones. In "The Phantom Menace," Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader as a boy) is supposedly the result of a virgin birth.

Furthermore, the film introduces the concept of midichlorians, organisms that exist in the bodies of sentient beings and serve as intermediaries to allow people to connect to the Force. In Judaism, we connect to God directly, without intermediary. (Or perhaps, since midichlorians are in the cells, essentially, it is everyone employing part of themselves to reach the Force.)

May the (Real) Force be with you!