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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Jewish Values vs. Other Faiths

I am struggling with the sense that on one hand I want to instill Jewish beliefs in my children, but on the other hand I feel this would be diminishing the value of other faiths. I feel that love, harmony and happiness are the most important values, and that we need to be accepting of everyone's beliefs. People are different, so isn't truth relative for each individual?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

This is an important question, one that I think goes to the heart of today's society.

If you think about it, you'll realize that "truth" cannot simply be everything that everyone wants.

Consider the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, who said, "The Jews are our misfortune," and fomented a hatred that later helped the Nazis generate anti-Semitism among the masses. Are you unwilling to diminish the value of this "father of a major religion" in the eyes of your children?

What about the jihadists who blow up planes, trains and buildings - all in the name of religion?

Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf:" "I believe today that my conduct is in accordance of the will of the Almighty creator. In standing guard against the Jew, I am defending the handiwork of the Lord."

Do you agree with Hitler or not? Cannot you say unequivocally that he was wrong?

Reality is what is. You have to decide if you want to teach your children truth, or if you want to immobilize them with cushy phrases of political correctness.

This does not condone any disrespect toward other people. We teach that all human beings are inestimably valuable and deserve to be loved and respected. But we do not teach that all beliefs have equal value. We are firm in the perception of reality as defined by the Torah. It has served our people well over the generations, all the way back to the momentous event at Mount Sinai which changed the face of human history forever.

For more on this, read:

Great Teshuva

My friend and I are having a disagreement about degrees of righteousness in God's eyes. Who is greater: One who is virtuous by inclination, or one who is virtuous by choice - i.e. one who must struggle with his passions and transform vice into virtue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Talmud says: "In a place where a ba'al teshuva (spiritual returnee) stands, even a full tzaddik cannot stand" (Brachot 34b). The idea is that by having sunk to the lowest depths, and then genuinely turning one's life around, the distance traveled in a positive direction is so great that it even exceeds those who have always been on the plus-side.

(Of course, one would not want to deliberately get into a negative situation, because there is no guarantee of coming out. Further, it often leaves residual stains.)

The great Mishnah commentary, Tifferet Yisrael (Kiddushin 4:14), tells of a fascinating event in the life of Moses:

An Arabian king sent an artist to the Israelite camp with orders to paint a portrait of Moses and to return with it to Arabia. (Those were the days before digital cameras.) Upon receiving the portrait, the king's physiognomists prepared a "face-reading" analysis of Moses to determine the base nature of Moses' personality. The ensuing report described Moses as greedy and arrogant. The king rebuked his physiognomists for their patently absurd analysis, given Moses' sterling reputation for kindness and humility.

The king decided to resolve the matter by visiting the Israelite camp and relating to Moses all that transpired. Moses assured the king that the physiognomists were as competent as the artist. Moses explained that by inclination he had many character flaws. Only sustained self-discipline and sheer determination enabled him to overcome his natural inclination and to obtain the stature and glory that were now his.

I should mention that various rabbis doubt this story, given the other sources that Moses was righteous from birth. But the idea is valid: Through sheer determination, we can overcome our flaws and achieve great spiritual heights.

Half-Shekel Equality

Before Purim, the rabbi put out a plate and told everyone to give a half-shekel (or its local equivalent). I understand this was done in the times of the Tempe to purchase public offerings. But what is its relevance today?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

When the Torah instructs every Jew to donate one Half-Shekel annually, the law is that everyone must give exactly the same amount. Nobody is allowed to give more than one Half-Shekel - even if they are wealthy and want to give more!

Why is it forbidden for anyone to give more?

The answer is that in God's grand plan, every Jew is equally valuable. If one person is born with physical strength and becomes a brick-layer, while another is born with a sharp mind and becomes a brain surgeon, each makes his own important contribution to society. Neither should feel any more or less valuable than the other. It is a mistake to think that being born with more talent somehow makes a person better. The Talmud says that the only thing we earn is our good name and character. Everything else is a gift. In the words of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, true self-esteem comes from focusing on your spiritual growth, not on superficial signs of status. Because no one person's "package" is inherently better than another.

The story is told of the great Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th century Jerusalem), who asked his congregation to delay the evening prayers until the street sweeper arrived. Said Rabbi Auerbach: "This man is devoted and committed to his work, and takes pride in the contribution he makes to Jewish life. I wish I had such pure intentions in my own work!"

Yet we are still left with another question: Why does the Torah command everyone to give a Half-Shekel - why not a whole shekel?

The answer is that the Jewish people are an indivisible unit and we cannot achieve our goals without each other. The Kabbalists explain that just as 600,000 Jewish souls stood at Mount Sinai, so too there are 600,000 letters in the Torah (including the white spaces between letters). Because just as a Torah scroll is invalid if even a single letter is missing, so too the Jewish people are handicapped if even one Jew has fallen away from our people.

Every Jew is crucial, an indivisible part of the whole. This is why it is so important to reach out to fellow Jews who may be estranged from their heritage. We try to bring them back - not only for their own sake - but also for the sake of the Jewish nation which is suffering from their absence. In this way, the idea of the Half-Shekel is as relevant today as it was in the time of Moses!