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Exuberant Song, Haunting Melody

Exuberant Song, Haunting Melody

The Tzemach Tzedek’s musical legacy spans the spectrum of human emotion and experience

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In Chabad, one of the most climactic moments of festivals and other special dates is when a specific series of melodies (a ‘seder nigunim’) is sung, each associated with one of the successive leaders of the movement. Each Rebbe had a distinct personality, a distinct approach to the perpetuation of Chassidism; each lived through different times, and faced different challenges. Singing the melodies of each one conjures a series of reflections and images, drawn from their teaching, from the stories that have been passed on about their lives, and from past moments of personal inspiration.

Wherever Chassidim are today, singing this traditional series of melodies is a form of soul connection that transcends the bounds of time. But to participate in a seder nigunim at the Rebbe’s farbrengen was something else entirely. This was a tremendous experience of shared holiness, of intense movement, momentum, and transcendence. There was a palpable sense of the spiritual presence of each successive Rebbe, invoked through our singing of each successive melody; a sense of Chabad’s living history culminating in the present moment and driving onward.

It is a song that conveys tremendous power and confidence; disciplined exaltation

At the Rebbe’s farbrengens, the melody associated with the third rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, was “Yemin Hashem.” It’s words are taken from a passage in Psalms, 118:16, which is included in Hallel: “G‑d's right hand is exalted, G‑d's right hand performs deeds of valor!” Though these words celebrate the triumph of Holiness, it sways back and forth in parts, and is often sung at a deliberate pace, at once reflective and vigorous. Even when sung slowly it is a song that conveys tremendous power and confidence; disciplined exaltation. But in the Rebbe’s presence the song was song at a faster tempo, with particular exuberance and joy, and with the Rebbe vigorously waving his arms, stirring the song to a crescendo.

Listen:

My own memories of these occasions are sharpened by an event that took place shortly after the Rebbe suffered a stroke in 1992. I don’t remember exactly when it was, but at some point a large group of Chassidim gathered at the gravesite of the Rebbe’s father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch. It was a raw emotional time, and we were there to pray for the Rebbe’s recovery. The senior Chassidim were inside the granite structure surrounding the grave (known as ‘the ohel’). Many others stood outside in the cemetery listening and participating via a PA system. The atmosphere was thick with deep concern and heartfelt yearning.

Throughout the years of the Rebbe’s leadership, Rabbi Yoel Kahn had been the foremost exponent of his teachings, and the chief editor of his published talks and discourses. At farbrengens he would stand up front, taking in the Rebbe’s every word, and would lead the Chassidim in singing the traditional series of melodies associated with the successive rebbes. On this occasion too, R. Yoel led us in a seder nigunim, invoking the unique merit of each Rebbe in turn. The ohel seemed a strange setting for these songs, and with closed eyes and open hearts we envisioned singing them in "770," at the Rebbe's farbrengen; memories and hopes fused as one.

But when it came to the Tzemach Tzedek's Niggun, R. Yoel didn't begin the familiar "Yemin Hashem" song. Instead, he began a haunting and wordless melody that most of us didn't know. Looking around, there were only a few who were singing along. Those in the know explained, whispering, that this melody is called "Nigun Hishtatchus," and that it was sung by the Tzemach Tzedek at the gravesite of his mother, Rebbetzin Devorah Leah.

Listen Nigun Hishtatchus (Symphony) :

Listen Nigun Hishtatchus (Heichal Neginah)

We were all familiar with the story of Rebbetzin Devorah Leah. She was the daughter of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, and in the year 1792 she sensed that on high it had been decreed that her father should pass away before his teachings were fully developed and publicised. In order to overt the decree she secretly convened a rabbinic court, ordering them to arrange an exchange of her father’s soul with her own. Soon after she fell ill and passed away, entrusting her young son, Menachem Mendel—later known as the Tzemach Tzedek—to R. Schneur Zalman’s personal care.

"Nigun Histatchus" is a melancholy song, filled with longing, with a palpable void of deep felt loss

"Nigun Histatchus" is a melancholy song, filled with longing, with a palpable void of deep felt loss. It speaks softly and slowly, painfully expressing a deep sadness. And yet, it doesn’t fall apart or sink into despair. It is deliberate, weighty and measured, unwavering with stamina and strength.

It was this haunting melody that the Tzemach Tzedek sang when visiting his mother’s gravesite. Given the circumstances following the Rebbe's stroke in 1992, it seemed right and appropriate to bring this Niggun back.

Sefer Ha-nigunim, the authoritative compendium of Chabad melodies, introduces this nigun as “a short melodic movement that is filled with intense connection (deveykut), soulful yearning (ga’aguim nafshi’im), a quivering silence from the hidden point of the heart.” It is a melody in which connection and yearning, closeness and distance, are combined. It is a disturbing melody, but also soothing, conveying a sense of presence traced in the void of absence; a sense that in the hidden point of the heart there is a connection between this world and the next.

* * *

In Chabad there is little place for melancholy, and there is certainly no room for despair. In the Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman’s authoritative guide to serving G‑d, Chapters 26-31, he warns against allowing anxious or depressing thoughts to enter your mind. The best way to serve G‑d, and overcome worldly distractions, is to do so with enthusiastic alacrity and joyous inspiration. This was especially emphasized by the Rebbe, who taught his chassidim to embrace the good, and to focus on the positive potential of even the most difficult situations; to abandon the tribulations and failures of the past and to move forward, taking concrete steps towards a more optimistic future. In the name of the Tzemach Tzedek he would often repeat the dictum, “think good and it will be good,” and dedicated intricate talks to its theological basis and implications.

The juxtaposition of these two melodies, shows that alongside joy there is also room to express a darker type of emotion

But the same Tzemach Tzedek who espoused such a positive vision of the real power of optimistic thought, and whose “Yemin Hashem” was sung with such joyful abandon at the Rebbe’s farbrengen, also gave us the quiveringly painful expression of loss that is “Nigun Hishtatchus.” The juxtaposition of these two melodies, shows that alongside joy there is also room to express a darker type of emotion. In the words of the biblical book of Kohelet (3:4), “there is a time for tears.”

Yes, Chabad has a major positivity bias, but that doesn’t mean that every void needs to be paved over with a facade of contrived joy. In “Nigun Hishatchus” the Tzemach Tzedek bequeathed us a great gift: a melodious language in which we can express deep loss, pain, and yearning. This a way to face the darker side of human experience, the void of absence; a way for pain to be elevated into something powerful and moving, rather than allowing it to collapse into stagnant depression. It might even be suggested that it was through singing “Nigun Hishtatchus,” working through, and so eloquently expressing, the loss he experienced at a very young age, that the Tzemach Tzedek was able to reach the assured and joyous place where he could triumphantly sing “Yemin Hashem.”

At a seder nigunim today, you might hear either “Nigun Hishtatchus” or “Yemin Hashem.” Despite standing at two poles of the emotional spectrum, both of them have now become widely associated with the Tzemach Tzedek and his legacy. It seems fitting in this context to cite a tradition preserved in the Rebbe’s compendium, Hayom Yom, entry for the 13th of Sivan:

The Tzemach Tzedek composed many melodies, and would study Torah aloud and melodiously. From time to time he would pause in the midst of his studies, or in the midst of writing Chassidic teachings and Jewish legal responsa, to sing a melody… From the sound of the Tzemach Tzedek's melody you could tell in what subject he was occupied.

Aside from his recognized stature as Chassidic thinker, a Jewish legal authority, and a leader of the Jewish people, the Tzemach Tzedek was also a gifted composer, whose songs and melodies capture a full spectrum of human emotion and experience.

Click here to listen to more samples of the Tzemach Tzedek’s musical legacy.

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The life and times of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866)