1. Among chassidim, singing a melody is a customary mode of avodah that derives from the Baal Shem Tov.

R. Moshe, the Alter Rebbe’s youngest son, sang melodiously. (By the way, his eager promptness1 was exemplary, and he was of pleasant appearance, as too were all of his brothers and sisters.) When R. Shlomo, the pastry cook from Vitebsk, heard him singing one day, he said: “You sing just like your father! I heard him singing twenty years ago in Vitebsk.”

How did that come about?

This R. Shlomo, a respected local householder,2 used to prepare cake for the weddings of his well-to-do townsmen, and would provide all the cake for the weddings of poor families, free of charge. In his old age he became a chassid of the Alter Rebbe. His son, a contemporary of R. Gavriel Nosse-Chein, had already been a chassid of the Alter Rebbe from his youth.

When the Alter Rebbe first came to settle in Vitebsk as the new son-in-law of R. Yehudah Leib Segal, his scholarly acuity attracted an entire circle of admirers, and it was considered an honor to have him as a guest at a festive occasion. At that time, when he was known locally as “Reb Leibele’s son-in-law,” he used to be asked to grace such occasions with an original pilpul, a learned Talmudic discourse. In those days he spoke very quickly, and people used to remark that he was able to clearly articulate a great number of words in one minute.

On one such occasion he delivered a closely-argued pilpul with unusual speed, and its brilliant logic amazed his listeners. He concluded with the words, “The tongue is the quill of the heart.”

He was then asked to sing a melody, because whenever he sang to himself as he studied or davened, all those nearby were captivated by the sweetness of his voice. Finally, having sung for them, he said: “The tongue is the quill of the heart, and a song is the quill of the soul.”

This was one of the respects in which the Alter Rebbe hit upon a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov before he ever knew that this “grandfather” had ever existed. (In later years, the Alter Rebbe would refer to the Baal Shem Tov as his zeide, his spiritual grandfather.) Only after he visited Mezritch did he hear from the Maggid that the Baal Shem had taught that singing a melody is a customary mode of avodah in Chassidus.

The above encounter explains R. Shlomo’s comment to the Alter Rebbe’s son, R. Moshe, “You sing just like your father!”

What was said above about the power of a niggun applies only to a niggun that is filled with content. When one hears a niggun, one can tell if it is an empty niggun, or a niggun with which people have davened – that is, a niggun in which one can hear the concept on which someone meditated as he davened.

2. The Mitteler Rebbe had an ensemble of instrumentalists. In fact when I was in Lubavitch, I saw one of their surviving instruments. Instrumental music has a specific role to play in avodah.

It was said of the amazing speed of the Mitteler Rebbe’s script that he wrote by administering an oath to his quill.3 When the Tzemach Tzedek was told that the Mitteler Rebbe had written the [lengthy] maamar that begins Az Yashir in an hour-and-a-half, he said: “People say that my father-in-law made use of a quill that wrote under oath. Not so. His hand was utterly subservient to Elokus.”4 Another version of that last phrase: “His hand was bound to his thought.”

3. [After those present sang R. Asher of Nikolayev’s niggun,5 the Rebbe Rayatz said:]

I remember when R. Asher learned this niggun at the wedding in the family of my Horenstein relatives-by-marriage, which I attended together with him. My father was abroad at the time. The wedding guests included Bobover and Tchortkover chassidim. Now, when chassidim of different groups meet – and not only when chassidim and misnagdim meet – they customarily exchange provocative gibes. In that spirit, those guests soon began to taunt us with scornful remarks. At the time, we were like a lone rose among the thorns…6

I told them that there had once been a Chabad chassid called R. Pesach Melamed, but he was popularly known as R. Pesach Melamed Sha’os “R. Pesach-who-teaches-just-a-few-hours.” This earnest oved HaShem regularly davened at such meditative length that he had only a few free hours a day during which he could tutor his pupils – in summer, after Minchah, and in winter, after Maariv. He would make this clear to the parents in advance, in order that he should not be counted as “one who is slack in doing G‑d’s work.”7 Needless to say, he was a very poor man.

Anyway, while R. Pesach was walking down the street one day, within earshot of two adult scholars who were discussing Torah subjects, another young misnaged approached them and said that “the-man-who-teaches-just-a-few-hours” speaks of them scornfully. R. Pesach retorted and said that not only did he speak of them scornfully, but in his eyes they simply didn’t count. He went on to say that even bittul, annulling something to the extent that it is regarded halachically as non-existent, comprises various levels. Even the bittul of another person’s object of idolatry – avodah zarah, literally “alien worship” – relates to something (such as an idol) that is alien, but is nevertheless an object. In his eyes, however, his detractors were of no account, as if non-existent.

In response to my story, my listeners objected: “Non-existent?! Aren’t we sitting at a table and occupying space?!”

I replied: “True, the table and the loaf and the fish all exist; they all have metzius. [And since in chassidic usage the term metzius (lit., “existence”) also signifies a person with a bloated and egocentric perception of himself as a significant, self-sufficient entity, I concluded:] And one metzius recognizes the existence of another metzius…”

It was at that wedding that R. Asher of Nikolayev heard a niggun that he brought home to Nikolayev, and from that there evolved the niggun that we sang just now.

4. The teachings of Chassidus discuss at length the difference between the kabbalas ol that is called for throughout the year and the kabbalas ol that is called for on Rosh HaShanah. However, the distinction between the latter and the kabbalas ol of Shavuos is alluded to only once.

The kabbalas ol of Shavuos takes place at the level of yechidah,8 and for one’s rationally-constructed avodah9 at this level, the Shulchan Aruch defines gradated steps. It does not give directives, however, for etzem haneshamah, the essence of the soul which remains Above. It is from this level that the kabbalas ol of Shavuos springs, and it is through this level of avodah that one can perceive the light within the Torah. After all, it is possible for a person to study Torah, yet the Torah doesn’t teach him.10 It is also possible that the Torah does teach him, but the light of the Torah remains far removed from him.

5.In former times, younger chassidim used to ask vintage chassidim to explain to them not only the precise meaning of the words that they had heard from their Rebbe at yechidus, but also the message being conveyed.

One day in the year 5636 (1876), in the period during which my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, was delivering the series11 of maamarim known as Mayim Rabim, he was visited by a young chassid who was being groomed in the paths of avodah.The Rebbe Maharash directed him to focus on the plain meaning of the words12 during his weekday davening, but on Shabbos and occasionally at other times he should also meditate on the content of the prayers, even if it was not directly related to the plain meaning of the words.

Since he left the yechidus without having understood what he had been told, he went off to speak to my father, [the Rebbe Rashab,] who was then fifteen or sixteen years old. My father explained the above directive by applying it, by way of example, to a sample verse, phrase by phrase:13

Israel saw the mighty hand…: When the people witnessed the Divine Providence…

that G‑d had wielded against the Egyptians (Mitzrayim)…: within the finite straits (meitzarim) [of This World],

the people feared G‑d…: they beheld the revealed Havayah,

and they believed in G‑d and in Moshe, His servant: they believed in the hidden Havayah, and had a conception of Daas Elyon.14

6. Whenever the chassidim of long ago made the journey to visit their Rebbe, they would take along with them the local melamed and perhaps someone else as well. Even though at the time they didn’t quite have the resources to cover the extra expense, they were not concerned: they trusted that it would all work out. They knew, as a matter of principle, that this part of their money had really been intended [from Above] to belong to some other person, and was currently deposited in their own hands for temporary safe-keeping only. [And since this was axiomatic to all concerned,] the gift gave the benefactor no reason for conceit, and made the recipient feel respected.

This [self-effacing stance] recalls a classic teaching on G‑d’s command to Noach: Bo… el hateivah15 – “Go into the Ark.” [Now, in the Holy Tongue the word teivah (תֵּבָה) means not only “an ark” but also “a word.” Hence, on the non-literal level of interpretation known as derush, the Baal Shem Tov perceived here a directive for the avodah of davenen:] “Go into the word!” In this way, it is not the individual who is master of the word, because that situation would allow him to be distracted by alien thoughts; rather, the word is master over him.

This in turn recalls the solution of the Maggid of Mezritch to the question: If a love of G‑d is felt in the heart, what need is there for a command that “you shall love [the L‑rd your G‑d]?”16 The Maggid explains that the verse commands us to undertake appropriate meditation; the love of G‑d “with all your might” will follow spontaneously. Likewise, if one toils in the avodah of loving G‑d “with all your heart and with all your soul,” loving Him “with all your might” will follow spontaneously.

7. How can one attain the light of the Torah? – By toiling during one’s davenen, and by profound comprehension and meditation during one’s preparation for davenen. In order that one’s davenen should be as it ought to be, one must get up in the morning like a Jew;17 and in order to get up in the morning like a Jew, one needs to go to sleep like a Jew; and in order to sleep like a Jew, one must first drive out the gross peasant, so as not to sleep in the company of that heathen18 who lurks inside every Jew. And in order to drive out that heathen peasant, one must first conscientiously recite the Prayer Before Retiring at Night. One then sleeps like a Jew and gets up like a Jew. Suppose that then, before his morning davenen, he weeps from the heart – not only over the fact that his conduct is inconsistent with the chassidic concept that he has just studied [in preparation for davenen], but also over the painful fact that a sublime Divine concept should be vested in the physical brain and heart of a mortal.

If, after the above sequence, after his meditative avodah and after he has finished his tefillos, he studies a chapter of Mishnayos or a page of Gemara, the light of the Torah lights up his innermost being.

8. These times are severe. (Whenever one says such things, there are people who are going to say that these are words of rebuke, and whenever one says what is going to be, there are people who are going to say that one is uttering curses, G‑d forbid! No one is rebuking and no one is cursing – but the truth cannot be hidden. The truth must be stated.) These are very severe times. Better times ahead are not visible. We must plead that things will take place with lovingkindness and mercy.19

True, it is written that “G‑d is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger”20 – but when He is “slow to anger,” He also “claims His due.”21 We must plead to be shown that He is “exceedingly kind.”22 May G‑d grant that things will take place with lovingkindness and mercy.