Jewish Thought

Higher than Angels

Some people look at themselves in a negative light and think that they're unworthy of serving the Almighty, maybe because they've been in such low places and done such kinky things that they think Hashem doesn't want anything to do with them at all. Or, maybe they were born into an observant family and at some point fell off the path, and they think that the Almighty is angry at them; they fear that their Father in Heaven will reject them. Both groups are utterly wrong, as Rabbi Lazer explains in today's podcast with one of his original parables. You'll love this:

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The Right Way to Pray

Despite all the righteous men in our history, we learn the proper and best way to pray from Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel. Hannah's type of prayer overrides nature - that's how powerful it is. We all can tap into the same source of abundance. 

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Chanukah Message from the Melitzer Rebbe shlit'a

Emuna Beams is privileged to host the Melitzer Rebbe shlit'a, one of the Jewish world's most highly regarded scholars and the epitome of upright character and holiness, a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and son-after-son of the holy and legendary Rebbe Michel'e of Zlatchov. The Melitzer offers some encouraging thoughts for spiritual strengthening, especially during Chanukah. Enjoy, and have a lovely Shabbat Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh!

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Deep Roots

Shavua Tov! Today's Emuna Beam comes from the ancient Sycamore grove in the dunes of the northern Negev Desert south of Ashdod. What's the secret of these trees and their ability to thrive in such an arid climate with winds and shifting sands? These trees are an amazing living parable about the Jewish People, as we see here:

Click here for your free mp4 download of this podcast; you are entitled to listen to it on your own device and to pass it on to others as well, courtesy of "Emuna Beams."


The Sweetest Fruit

King Solomon talks about what's sweet in two different places, but he seems to contradict himself. In Proverbs 9:17, he says that stolen waters are sweet.

Yet, he turns around in Ecclesiastes 5:11, and says that the sleep of an honest laborer is sweet.

So if you want to taste sweetness in your life, what do you do? Do you steal or do you perform honest labor?

First of all, let me assure you that King Solomon, the wisest of all men who ever walked the earth, didn't at all contradict himself. We simply must take a closer look at each of his sayings to see that they complement one another rather than contradicting each other. How?

The Gemara in Bava Kama 119a tells us that stealing a mere penny from someone is tantamount to murder. Therefore, the sweetness of stolen goods that King Solomon was talking about is really chocolate-covered poison, because anyone who steals is going to get the book thrown at him, not only in the next world but eventually in this world too.

Guess what else our sages categorize as stealing: they say that partaking of anything in this world without making a blessing is just like stealing from the Almighty. Many people don't like hearing this – they protest and say, "Hey what are you talking about? I didn't steal that food – I paid for it at the supermarket." OK, maybe you're not stealing from the supermarket, but it's still stealing from the Almighty. The supermarket didn't send the rain clouds that watered the wheat field that enabled the wheat to grow that eventually became the flour or the loaf of bread that you bought at the supermarket. Maybe you paid the bakery but you didn't pay the Almighty.

The same goes for medicine and medical care. Sure, you paid the doctor, the pharmacist or the medical insurance, but they don't make your heart, lungs and eyes function properly – the Almighty does that and He deserves our thanks.

With this in mind, we can understand what King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, that the sleep of an honest laborer is sweet.

You see, the blessings we make come under the category of prayer. Our sages say that prayer is "labor of the heart." So, when you pray for whatever you receive in life, the object of your prayer is the sweetest thing on earth. We therefore arrive at an amazing conclusion which should be an absolute obligation in our daily lives: whatever we pray for becomes the sweetest fruit on earth, yet if we receive something we didn't pray for, it simply won't have a blessing and its apparent sweetness will soon turn bitter. Take for example the guy that wins the Irish lottery: before he had the $20 million, he had a good night's sleep. But once he won the lottery, his doorbell doesn't stop ringing with long lost relatives and friends – our lottery winner has no more peace and quiet. Why? He didn't pray for what he got.

Don't take anything in life for granted. Pray for all your needs and in the meanwhile, thank Hashem for everything you have.

Before anything you do, pray. Say a short prayer before you get in the car so that you'll arrive safely at your destination. Pray for a minute or two before you make your sales pitch to the prospective buyer. Pray when you put the Shabbat dinner in the oven, that it should come out tasting wonderful. When it does, and when you make that fat commission, you'll know that it was Hashem helping you – that is ever so sweet, like a ripe watermelon on a hot August day.

The wonderful thing about the sweetness of prayer is that it neither spikes your blood sugar nor is it fattening. Prayer is the sweetest fruit on earth. You know why? When you pray for something, you won't become smug or arrogant when you get it. Oftentimes, if Hashem knows that we'll become arrogant if He gives us what we want, He simply won't give it. But, the more you pray and the more you depend on God for what you need, the more readily you'll see your prayers answered, and that is ever so sweet. Try, cherished brothers and sisters, you'll love it. G-d bless always!

If you prefer listening to reading, hear the broadcast of "The Sweetest Fruit":


Real Smugglers, Fake Funeral: A Chassidic Tale for Yom Kippur

Fake Funeral
Chassidic stories are known to be healthy for the soul. Let me share one with you that I heard from the Melitzer Rebbe of Ashdod, may Hashem bless him:

Back in 18th Century Eastern Europe, smuggling was a popular but very risky way for a Jew to make a living. The Jews were only allowed to live in a certain area known as the "Pale of Settlement", were not allowed to own land and were limited to certain trades. The fact that the Czar levied tremendous taxes on liquor and tobacco made the smuggling business from Poland to Russia all the more lucrative. Yet, woe to the person who got caught, for the Russian customs police who manned the international border with Poland were more than motivated to get their burly hands on violators, especially when the outlaw was a Jew...

Nachumk'e sat down at his old wooden table in his dilapidated cabin in the Polish shtetyl (village) of Kratzenshtok, not far from the Russian border. His brother-in-law, who lived on the Russian side, told him that he could triple his money by selling Polish shnops (booze) to the Russians. The only tiny "technical detail" was how to get it across the border. Nachumk'e thought of his four daughters, the oldest of whom was rapidly reaching marital age. "Where do I get the money to marry off one, much less four?", thought Nachumk'e, on the verge of despair.

Suddenly, a light bulb flashed in his head. What a great idea...

Nachumk'e summoned his trusted best friend Berch'e and told him the idea. Berch'e was enthused beyond words, for he too was suffering from major income problems with no relief in sight. They bought the cheapest coffin they could find, a plain pine box, and filled it to the brim with with bottles of the best Polish whiskey, which would bring a handsome sum on the Russian side of the border. And, to muffle the sound of the battles rattling, they packed as much choice Polish tobacco as they could. The coffin, once its contents were sold to the ready and waiting black marketeers on the Russian side, would bring a handsome sum.

Nachumk'e and Berch'e hired "extras" to serve as mourners and pallbearers. Although these extras didn't know exactly what their employers were doing, they didn't care. For an easy day's work, a few hours of crossing the border and coming home, they were paid three times more than what they normally made by chopping wood and carrying pales of water from the river to the village.

The "procession" arrived at the Russian border. A burly customs police sergeant, a Russian with knee-high spit-shined boots and a handlebar mustache, approached the Jews. "Open the coffin," he barked. Nachumk'e gulped but bounced back quickly and said, "Sir, every nation honors its dead. Shall we violate the dignity of the deceased by disturbing its rest and opening the coffin?" The Russian waved the procession through.

On the Russian side, the smugglers breathed a deep sigh of relief. Yet, with the joy of the stack of rubles that was soon in their hands, they forgot all about the moment of peril, when they could feel their pulse in their throats.

After the first taste of smuggling success, Nachumk'e and Berch'e started performing weekly funerals. But, the more that they and the Russian border guards grew accustomed to one another, the less cautious the Jewish smugglers became.

One day, a high ranking customs officer from St. Petersburg decided to visit several border stations on the Polish border. He ascended the lookout tower and observed from above all the happenings below. Just then, Nachumk'e and company arrived at the border with a casket and their usual entourage. Just as the sergeant was about to wave them through, the officer descended like an eagle on the funeral entourage. "Open the casket," he barked, "this very second."

Nachumk'e, a little too over-confidant by this time, protested, "Sir, what about the dignity of the dead?"

The Russian drew his saber from its sheath and growled, "Jew, unless you wish to join the ranks of the deceased, open the coffin right now!"

Opening the coffin, Berch'e sobbed deep heart-rending sobs. Nachumk'e wailed. The other Jews joined in the crying...

The bottles of golden Polish whiskey glittered in the sunlight. Packets and packets of tobacco released their pungent scent.

The Russian officer, from his perch in the lookout tower, had never seen such a casual funeral in his life. No one was crying and a few were even smiling. That's what made them so suspicious. The officer said to Nachumk'e and Berch'e, "Aha, now you are crying. You will continue to do so in a Siberian prison. Idiots, if you would have cried a few minutes ago, then you could have been laughing now. But now, it's too late!

* * *

The above parable is a well-known Chassidic-Yiddish folk tale that we tell before Yom Kippur. During the year, people suffer all types of pain and tribulations. But if they would have cried on Yom Kippur, sincerely asking the Almighty for to forgive them for all their misdeeds, then they'd be laughing now. The Gemara teaches that there are no tribulations without prior transgressions, but teshuva (penitence) atones for transgressions and therefore wards off suffering.

Have an easy fast and a most meaningful Yom Kippur! G-d willing, we'll be back right after Yom Kippur. Every blessing for the best year of your life, LB


Rosh Hashanah and Political Correctness

Zachariah's Tomb
Flattery in Judaism doesn't mean that you tell your wife that she's gorgeous when she really is rather plain looking. Flattery in Judaism means telling a wicked person what a nice guy he is. In that vein, flattery is a serious lie. The Gemara in tractate Sota therefore says that flatterers are one of the four groups that cannot receive the Divine Presence. In contemporary jargon, the term for such flattery is "political correctness." Insofar as political correctness fits the Halachic definition of flattery, we can conclude that the politically correct are shunned from the Divine Presence. That means that they forfeit inestimable spiritual abundance and blessings as well as round-the-clock Divine protection.

The above statement sounds stiff, doesn't it? Let's see an example of the devastation that political correctness causes us (For the whole story, see Kings II 12:17-18; Chronicles II 24:15-22; Gittin 57b):

Zachariah the Prophet lived during the time of the First Temple around 9th Century BCE. King Joash reigned in Judea at the time. King Joash, who was raised by his uncle, Zachariah's father the righteous High Priest Jehoyada, at first ruled in accordance with Torah – in truth, justice and in emuna. But, when Jehoyada died at the ripe old age of 130, Joash came under the influence of self-seeking nobles, idolatrous priests and false prophets who encouraged the king to cast aside the ways of Torah for luxury and licentiousness.

Seeing the terrible pit of immorality and idolatry that Joash had fallen into, Hashem sent Jehoyada's son the holy prophet Zachariah to chastise him and influence him to mend his ways. In the Holy Temple, Zachariah admonished both the populace and the ruling mafia for their evil ways and heinous breach of Hashem's Torah. This was in complete contrast to the false prophets who controlled public opinion at the time (much like today's media), telling the populace that everything was fine. It wasn't, as the destruction of the Holy Temple proved several years later.

At any rate, Zechariah's message didn't get many "likes" in the King's Palace, among the bureaucracy or among the general populace. At the nod of King Joash, Zechariah's first cousin who owed his life to Zechariah's father, Zechariah was stoned to death in the premises of the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur that turned out on a Shabbat that year! This was the most despicable deed imaginable, performed on the holiest imaginable day in the holiest imaginable place on earth.

When the Babylonian (ancient Iraq) Army seized Jerusalem and captured the Temple Mount, General Nebuzadran entered the inner chamber of the Holy Temple where the altar is and found the blood of Zachariah boiling on the floor. He asked the priests what that blood was and they told him that it was the remnant of the previous day's sacrifices. He didn't believe them, so he slaughtered a goat to see if the two types of blood were comparable. They were not. Nebuzadran then threatened the priests that he'd rake their flesh if they didn't tell him the truth…

The priests answered, "What can we tell you, sir! There was a prophet among us who rebuked us about matters pertaining to Heavenly service. We ganged up against him and killed him. Alas, for years now his blood has not come to rest."

The General said, "I shall be the one to appease his blood." Nebuzadran then butchered all the members of the Great Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) and the Lesser Sanhedrin, but Zechariah's blood still boiled. He then slaughtered thousands of young priests and young people from priestly families. The blood still boiled. The blood flowed from the Temple Mount down the Kidron Valley like a river. Nebuzadran then spoke to Zachariah's blood and said, "Zachariah, Zachariah! I have destroyed the best of them. Do you want me to kill them all?" The blood immediately came to rest.

When Nebuzadran saw this awesome miracle, he said to himself, "If they, who only killed a single person, were punished in such a way, what will become of me?"

On the spot he fled, giving up his entire lofty station in life and all his property, and became a righteous convert.

***

Don't think that the above episode was a lone one. When King Zedekiah and his false prophets turned to an alliance with Egypt in order to defeat the Babylonians, Jeremiah warned that instead, they should turn to Hashem. He warned that the Temple would be imminently destroyed if the people and the government continue in their evil ways. Politically, this wasn't at all popular. Jeremiah was beaten and thrown into a dungeon (see Jeremiah, ch. 37-38). He paid the price of his political incorrectness, but King Zedekiah and the populace paid a bigger price: Zedekiah's eyes were gouged out (ibid., 52) and the Holy Temple was completely destroyed.

***

Let's do some soul-searching this Rosh Hashanah: has anything changed? Are we any different than Zachariah's generation? Are we too afraid to speak up for truth and justice? Does anyone dare today to be politically incorrect and blow the whistle on public-sanctioned exhibitions of things that the Torah calls abominations? Does anyone dare lift a voice against politically-powerful people who are proven serial child molesters? Does anyone protest the unethical business practices that go on in the workplace?

Iran, Hezbolla and Hamas don't scare me in the least. The lie of political correctness should terrify all of us, for its outcome has been devastating throughout our history. As a New Year's resolution for 5780, we should commit to seek the truth, heed our true spiritual leaders and come back to Hashem. I pray that Hashem will always give us the boldness to buck social convention and immorality and the courage to cling to the truth of His Torah, no matter what the odds or how politically incorrect it may be. My heartfelt blessings for a signature in the Book of Life for a wonderful New Year, 5780, amen!


Beware of Judgment Traps

Judgment Trap
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev teaches (see Likutei Moharan I:113) that before an accused person is finally sentenced in the Heavenly Court, the judges ask that person if he/she agrees to the verdict.

Who would be so daft to agree to a guilty verdict against themselves? You're right - no one. Ah, but here's the trick: If the Heavenly Court would ask us about ourselves, surely we'd have a whole string of "justified" reasons and excuses to get ourselves off the hot-seat. But, the Heavenly Court is crafty; we are asked to judge another person. Our judgment of a fellow human is in effect our judgment against ourselves, what's known as "the judgment trap". Chapter 12 of the Book of Samuel II shows us a prime example:

Nathan the Prophet asked King David for his opinion in judging a difficult matter: "There were two men,” said Nathan, “one rich and one poor. The rich man had very thousands of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing but one small ewe which he cared for in his own house alongside his children. The ewe ate from his bread, drank from his cup, and slept in his midst, just like a daughter.”

Nathan continued. “Then a guest came to the rich man. The wealthy host was too stingy to slaughter any of his own sheep to serve to the guest, and instead took the poor man’s ewe and prepared it for the guest.”

King David was outraged by the haughtiness and hardheartedness of the rich man, and declared, “As G‑d lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay fourfold for the ewe, since he did this and had no pity!”

By issuing a verdict in the case set before him, David had unwittingly set the rules for his own prosecution and conviction!

Nathan the Prophet cried out, “You are the man! David recognized the scope of his sin, admitted his guilt and repented for his actions. Afterwards, Nathan the Prophet conveyed G‑d’s message that He had accepted David's atonement.

We have to be extremely careful to avoid falling into "judgment traps" such as the one described in the above example. Before we voice an opinion, we should stop and think that we may be sentencing ourselves for a very similar misdeed. In order to avoid inadvertently sentencing ourselves with stiff verdicts, we should be lenient and understanding with others.

These last days before Rosh Hashanna are notorious for being weeks of "judgment traps". The best policy is to speak minimally now, limiting our speech to prayer, Torah learning, and nurturing healthy family relations. Limit speech to the barest necessity for whatever business, trade, or profession that we need to make a living. When we do speak, we should exercise extreme caution to avoid judging others. If we do judge others, we should go out of our way to give them the benefit of the doubt, be lenient, tolerant, and understanding. This is especially critical in our judgments of our spouses, children, and parents.

Nobody escapes judgment traps, so don't fall into them in the first place. Hopefully, having become aware of judgment traps, we won't sign harsh verdicts against ourselves or against our fellow human never ever again. May G-d bless all of us for an inscription in the Book of a long and healthy Life for a wonderfful New Year 5780, amen.


Cramming Syndrome

Cramming Syndrome 20.9.19
Karen and Richie were both physical education majors at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. Both were superb all-around athletes, each with a specialty: a remarkable gymnast, Karen was looking forward to a career as a fitness trainer and gymnastics coach while Richie aspired to be a top-level strength-and-conditioning expert and swimming coach. They had much in common and planned to get married after graduating. Meanwhile, you'd always find them together, whether in the same classes or mostly enjoying outdoor and athletic activities. They played tennis and golf together and on weekends they'd go on long bike rides along the old Potomac River towpath near Seneca, Maryland or drive down for sun & surf at Ocean City.

Just as Karen and Richie loved the same things, they hated the same things. Their pet hate was Organic Chemistry 202. This was a required course for phys-ed majors just as it was required for pre-med students. There was no way around it. Karen and Richie could easily breeze through most of their studies, but there was no way to breeze through Organic Chem – you had to sit yourself down at a desk and learn, then learn, then learn some more. Were it not for this nemesis, their university days would have been play-school paradise, but alas, there's always a bump in the road...

Having cut most of their classes, the happy-go-lucky boyfriend and girlfriend decided that the bald-headed nerd who taught Organic Chem couldn't teach them anything that wasn't in the textbook; all the formulas and types of compounds seemed clear, no different than what the instructor was writing on the blackboard, so why sit in class on a balmy Maryland springtime afternoon, when you could be sunbathing or water skiing on the Chesapeake Bay?

The clock never stopped ticking; minutes, hours, days and weeks transpired until the ax suddenly hovered above their necks – final exams. They had only three days to prepare for Judgment Day in Organic Chem. That's when the talk about cramming started...

Karen and Richie didn't really open a book until 48 hours before the final exam. A 452-page text book in Organic Chemistry is quite different from a 452-page novel. It's not something  a person can sail through. Sometime, one can struggle with a single solitary page for a week. So, how do you cram 452 pages of ions, anions, carbonates, oxides, alcohols, phenols and carbides in three days?

First, you pull all-nighters.

You would think that phys-ed majors and fitness freaks don't do things that are detrimental to their health. Not so, if they're hit with the cramming syndrome…

How does one go for two days without sleeping? Phys-ed majors or not, you destroy your body and your brain with over-the-counter No-Doze pills and drink Turkish coffee and RedBull as if they were water. In short, you become a zombie with big black circles under your eyes and heart palpitations at the ripe old age of 22.

After the exam, the campus couple crashed, and it took a good two weeks for them to recover from the trauma they brought upon their bodies. Is it worth it? OK, even if they did pass the test (barely), they didn't retain a single thing of what they crammed. Consequently, the cramming added nothing to their education or personal development, except for enabling them to get their degrees. And, that's the best-case scenario...

***

Don't think that the cramming syndrome is only characteristic of university students like Karen and Richie.  Many folks suffer from it too. All year long, they do what they like, forgetting that they too have a day of “final exams”, when the Heavenly Court examines a person's every deed, spoken word and thought for the entire year. This final exam is the annual judgment day, known as Rosh Hashana. This final exam is no joke – it's life and death, as we say in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, “Who by fire, who by flood, who by the sword, and who by a wild animal...”

How do we prepare for such a final exam? Who can possibly account for what they thought, said or did nine, six or even three months ago?

Fortunately, The Almighty gave us a week of "Selichot", when we ask forgiveness and move into repentance mode. Beginning this coming Saturday night, we simply admit to Hashem what we did wrong, ask His forgiveness and pray for His help in improving ourselves. Penitenec, or teshuva as we say in Hebrew, is the "spiritual shower" required to maintain one's spiritual hygiene, where people should assess themselves and rectify what needs correcting every single day.

Obviously, the best course of action is to devote an hour a day to personal prayer, when we examine everything we did in the last 24 hours and do our necessary teshuva. That way, there's no need for cramming the year's 365 days – which we can't possibly remember everything that requires correcting – into the few remaining days before Rosh Hashana. Yet, most people stall until the last week or the last three days. That's tough…

It's tough to cram in a week. Yet, our compassionate and merciful Father in Heaven knows that we're human, so He gives us a one-week cramming period every year before Rosh Hashana – it's called the Selichot Week. Let's get to work! Blessings for a wonderful Shabbat and a very happy New Year 5780, LB


The Lesson of Rebbe Eliezer ben Yaacov

REBY 4.9.19Above: Rabbi Lazer praying in the hill overlooking the tomb above Rebbe Eliezer ben Yaacov's burial cave 

A great health-enhancing aid is to pray by the gravesites of our holy sages, and here in the Land of Israel, there are plenty of them. Yesterday on my way up north to Tzfat, I stopped by the holy burial cave of the Tannaic sage Rebbe Elezer ben Yaacov, one of Rebbe Akiva's seven foremost students, who rose to greatness after Rebbe Akiva's first 24,000 students died in a plague for not properly respecting each other. Many people have asked me to pray for their health, so I was glad to fulfill their request at this holy site.

Rebbe Eliezer ben Yaacov was extremely humble. He didn't say much, but almost everyone of his utterances has been encoded in religious law.  Let's hear more about him:

A Message from the Holy Gravesite of Rebbe Eliezer ben Yaacov from lazerbrody on Vimeo.