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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Centrality of the Land of Israel

What is so special about Israel? Why couldn't God make everything happen in America or some other country? If you say the answer is that "the history of the Jews happens there," then why couldn't it all have happened in some other place?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Theodore Herzl entertained a plan for the Jews to live in Uganda, and a 19th century American diplomat named Mordechai Manuel Noah launched a "Jewish Homeland" on a small island near Niagara Falls. Yet God chose the Land of Israel as the chosen land, and Jerusalem as its spiritual focus. Why?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in "Eye of the Universe":

"If you look at a map you will see the geographical location of the Land of Israel virtually guaranteed that it would play a key role in the tides of civilization. The Old World consisted of two great landmasses, Eurasia (Europe and Asia) and Africa. It was impossible to travel from Eurasia to Africa without passing through the Holy Land. Therefore, every conqueror, every civilization that passed from one continent to the other had to pass through the Holy Land and come in contact with the Jew. The Land of Israel thus interacted with virtually every great civilization, and all of them were, to some degree, influenced by the teachings of the Torah.

Besides being a gateway between north and south, the Holy Land is part of the keystone link between east and west. There are mountains in Israel where a cup of water spilled on the western slope will eventually flow in the Atlantic Ocean, while one spilled on the eastern slope will flow into the Pacific. In the past, most caravan routes linking the Atlantic and Pacific passed directly through the Holy Land. The Land of Israel was therefore literally the crossroads of civilization."

On a much deeper level, however, we see Jerusalem not only as a center of civilization, but also as the very center of the world. The Talmud says that creation began in Jerusalem, and the world radiated outward from this place. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the epicenter of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The world flows into this spot, and all life's forces resonate here. From this place, the whole world is cast into perspective.

The centrality of Jerusalem – and particularly Mount Moriah – has continued throughout history. Cain and Abel – and later Noah – brought offerings to God at this place. Abraham came to Mount Moriah and bound his son Isaac upon an altar; this is also where Jacob dreamed of the ladder. (Maimonides – Beit HaBechira 2:2)

King David purchased this very plot of land to be the site of the first Holy Temple, which was built by King Solomon in 825 BCE. Although 400 years later enemies of the Jews destroyed the Holy Temple and drove the Jews from their land, the Jews returned 70 years later to rebuild the second Holy Temple on the very same spot. Although the Romans destroyed this Temple in 70 CE, they left the remains of the retaining walls standing.

The holiness of this spot flourishes today, as millions of visitors come to pray at the famous Western Wall. The name Jerusalem has two parts: Yira, which means "to see," and shalem, which means "peace." This is the place of peace where God is seen.

Elsewhere, God is a theory, but in Israel, God is seen and felt as a tangible presence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. In Israel we achieve clarity.

Absolute Truth

I'm struggling with the sense on one hand that I want to instill Jewish beliefs in my children, but on the other hand I feel that would be diminishing the value and equal importance of the beliefs 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:

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

What about 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." ("The Holocaust" by Martin Gilbert, p. 28)

Do you agree with Hitler or not? Can 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 that have no connection to reality.

This does not mean that Judaism does not respect other people. It does mean that we are firm on our perception of reality which we have received from generations all the way back to the that momentous event at Mount Sinai, which changed the face of human history forever.

While we do teach that all human beings are inestimably valuable and deserve to be loved and respected, we do not teach that all beliefs have equal value.

For more on this, read:

Bar Mitzvah Gift

My nephew is having his bar mitzvah and I am thinking of a gift. In the old days, the gift of choice was a fountain pen, then a Walkman, and today an iPod. But I want to get him something special. What do you suggest?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Since this event celebrates the young person becoming obligated in the commandments, the most appropriate gift is, naturally, one that gives a deeper understanding of the Jewish heritage and enables one to better perform the mitzvot! (An iPod, s/he can get anytime.)

With that in mind, my favorite gift idea is a tzedakah (charity) box. Every Jew should have a tzedakah box in his home, so he can drop in change on a regular basis. The money can then be given to support a Jewish school or institution -- in your home town or in Israel (every Jews’ “home town”). There are beautiful tzedakah boxes made of wood and silver, and you can see a selection here.

For boys, a really beautiful gift is a pair of tefillin, the black leather boxes which contain parchments of Torah verses, worn on the bicep and the head. Your browser may not support display of this image. Owning a pair of Tefillin (and wearing them!) is an important part of Jewish identity. But since they are expensive (about $400), not every Bar Mitzvah boy has a pair. To make sure you get kosher Tefillin, see here.

If he already has Tefillin, consider a special waterproof Tefillin case that he can take on hikes, trips, etc.

The next obvious gift is a Jewish book. There are many hundreds of titles to choose from, so I’ve narrowed it down to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Top 10. Just click on the title to order:

Stone Chumash (published by ArtScroll), an excellent translation of the Five Books of Moses with running commentary on every page

Book of our Heritage by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov (Feldheim), a beautiful overview of the Jewish holidays

The Bar Mitzvah Treasury, an illustrated collection of customs and inspiring stories (by Rabbi Yonah Weinrib and Rabbi Yaakov Salomon; ArtScroll)

The Thinking Teenagers Guide to Life by Rabbi Akiva Tatz (Targum), gripping essays on forging a path through life

Sand and Stars by Yaffa Ganz (ArtScroll), a two-volume book about Jewish history, written especially for teenagers

Shmooze by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, a fun book that provokes thoughtful discussions on essential Jewish issues

The Long Road to Freedom, by Avner Gold, an exciting historical novel filled with intrigue and insight into Jewish life

Bible for the Clueless But Curious by Rabbi Nachum Braverman (Leviathan), packed with wisdom on relationships, spirituality and more

Candles in my Window by Beth Firestone, a delightful fiction book about a young girl discovering her Judaism

Triumph –’s popular book of inspiring true stories of challenge and spiritual growth

If all else fails, you can always give money. It is a nice idea to give $18 (or some multiple thereof), since the numerical value of 18 in Hebrew is "Chai," which means "Life."