A niggun is a stirring melody without words. As with all matters, a word creates definition, thereby limiting the subject to the attributed description. If a song were to contain words, its message could be only as deep as its words indicate; there is no room for elucidation—the translation is final. The purpose of the niggun is to break the boundaries of definitive meaning. By containing no words, the song allows the singer to embrace the tune as he understands, his intuition coloring his comprehension. The melody is no longer a story told by others; it is a tale you have experienced yourself.
The melody is no longer a story told by others; it is a tale you have experienced yourselfThe niggun of Shamil, “The Melody of the Waiting,” portrays an epic saga: the sequence of beats and the rise and fall of the tempo speak of yearning and cruel depression, but then of eventual hope and anticipation of freedom. In 1958, in his Brooklyn synagogue, the Rebbe related that this melody is the very same one sung by the marauder Shamil as he sat by the small, narrow window in his prison cell. Shamil was the political and religious leader of the Muslim tribes of the northern Caucasus, and had terrorized the foothills with rampaging skirmishes as he fought for his people’s dream of statehood and national identity. His legend grew as he triumphed, yet grew larger as he languished in Russian captivity; he was the symbol of his people, and his ballad became their anthem.
Sensing its true message, the Rebbe introduced an inspiring analogue wherein the tale of captivity reflects the soul-in-body phenomenon. As chassidic thought explains, the soul is a spark of G‑dliness sourced in His absoluteness. Thus, its arrival in a corporeal body heralds a long and arduous descent, a free fall in spiritual stature.
The soul cries and yearns for her former glory, her sanctity now tarnished as she dwells among mere mortals. The procession of the song follows the soul’s constant struggle, the challenges trying her mission and self, the temptations of the material world versus her delight in holiness.
The tale of captivity reflects the soul-in-body phenomenonCulminating in high tones, the song expresses hope of freedom: the soul anticipates a better tomorrow, firm in the belief that she may yet inspire an increasingly G‑dless world to answer a higher calling.
Shamil’s Niggun: Melody of the Waiting
He sits by the window of his small, dank and dingy cell. The cold stone walls reverberate his solemn tune, as he lifts his sad eyes, looking dreamily toward the narrow dome-shaped window. His ballad yearns for the freedoms of years past, and searches for the freedoms of tomorrow. He sings the melody of the waiting.
Remembering the conquests and relishing in his triumphs, his voice gains rhythm. The tempo gathers pace and momentum as the drama unfolds before his eyes. Emphatic like a victory march, his melody climbs and ascends, the memories of an ageless warrior streaming forth in song. O, the days of yore!
The beat slows now to a haunting tune. The crescendo deftly descends. The song now sings a melancholy tale: the story of a man brought to his knees, reduced to lonely days in forsaken monotony. He wears a blank stare, his harrowed image playing backdrop to his somber rhythm. Bleeding with perspiration, his long and scraggly auburn hair partially hides his swollen eyes. Unkempt stubble claims territory along his drawn and pale face. He looks a ghastly semblance of how they have lauded him: barely a warrior, barely human.
The melody screeches to a halt. His bent frame shakes violently as he pulls at his hair in frustration. He sputters, but no tears are forthcoming. He has cried all his tears. A cloudy tension seeps into the cell as he fights despair, vowing to hold faith. The moments pass in rigid stillness before he lifts his eyes heavenward. Gazing toward the soft sunlight spilling through his window, he begins to envision his redemption. To ride again alongside his faithful legions, protecting once more his home and country. To stand tall as before, the sun at his back and only the horizon ahead of him.
Cautiously, yet boldly, his song finds voice as the afternoon sunshine colors his shallow face. He can almost taste the sweet waters of liberation, his eyes wide with promise. His tune gathers heart as he hums with gusto. There is yet hope. Someday G‑d must answer the melody of the waiting.