I don’t read music, but I love chassidic melodies, as well as the stories behind them. The pages of musical notes in Sefer HaNiggunim1 are interspersed with biographical information, anecdotes and inspiration. I was leafing through this book in my teen years, and a short story about Reb Zalman Zlatopolsky’s niggun (chassidic melody) caught my attention because of its rich imagery. Its meaning wasn’t especially relevant to me at the time, but it left its imprint. Years later this story, both its words and imagery, continues to uplift, reassure and inspire me.

Some historical background might be helpful. Three generations of Chabad rebbes are involved in this story: the Rebbe Maharash (1834–1882), who was the fourth Lubavitcher rebbe; his son, the Rebbe Rashab (1860–1920), the fifth rebbe; and his grandson, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (1880–1950), the sixth rebbe, also known as the Previous Rebbe, or the Frierdiker Rebbe.

The story happened in 1885, several years after the passing of the Rebbe Maharash. The setting was Menton, a scenic seashore resort town in the French Riviera, which served as a place for quiet reflection and writing for the Rebbe Rashab.

The Freirdiker Rebbe told this story at least twice:2

In 5671 (1911) I was with my father, the Rebbe Rashab, in Menton, France. Once, while we were walking along the seashore, amidst that glorious scenic setting, my father showed me a bench nestled in the brambles, between the sea and the forest. My father recalled that years earlier, in 5645 (1885), three years after his father the Rebbe Maharash’s passing, he was walking along this stretch in Menton and came upon the chassid, R. Zalman Zlatopolsky, sitting on this very same bench, deep in thought. His eyes closed and filled with tears, he sang the chassidic melody associated with his name with great devotion. My father, the rebbe, did not want to disturb this chassid’s reverie. R. Zalman sat on that bench, singing and crying, deep in thought, for hours on end. My father told me, “The sight of Reb Zalman reflects the life-yearning of a chassid, one who physically lost his rebbe a number of years ago; but spiritually his rebbe stands right before him!”

Later on, my father asked him which chassidic teaching was going through his mind while sitting on that bench. Zalman wasn’t an especially emotional person, but he burst out in tears and had trouble catching his breath. He told my father which specific maamar (chassidic discourse) it was, and when he had heard it from the Rebbe Maharash. (That is what he was thinking of—and reliving!—while singing that melody.)

(Listen to Reb Zalman’s melody here:)

“The life-yearning of a chassid . . .” A physical loss and a spiritual continuum. A palpable presence, and a yearning caused by a void. Conflicting emotions and experiences that are both true, that in some ways even support and complement each other. This paradoxical description by a rebbe of a chassid from a hundred years past gave expression to the internal struggle many of us experienced after the passing of the Rebbe on Gimmel Tammuz, the 3rd of Tammuz, 1994. It encapsulated, in one sentence, many of the rich chassidic sentiments and perspectives found in the Rebbe’s uplifting and reassuring talks of 1950 after the passing of his father-in-law, the Frierdiker Rebbe. It brought to life the words of the Zohar quoted at the end of Tanya, chapter 34, that it is honest, normal and healthy to have “crying lodged in one side of the heart, yet joy in the other.”

These few words, so pregnant with meaning, gave me much strength when I was a yeshivah student in my twenties grappling with the great loss of the Rebbe’s passing alongside a continued, ever-deepening spiritual connection to him.

But it wasn’t until I was raising children that I appreciated the bench. The visual of the Rebbe Rashab revisiting that bench 26 years later, pointing it out and sharing the vivid memory with his son, helps me give my own children a sense of the same experience.

Now and then, in outings with our children, we come across a park bench that meets the criteria of the story of Reb Zalman Zlatopolsky. It is set off to the side, alone near the banks of a lake or river, in a quiet clearing surrounded by trees. My kids know that we call that kind of bench “a Zalman Zlatopolsky bench.” We stop to sit, say the 12 Torah passages that the Rebbe urged children to say, sing a niggun or two, and recall the Rebbe Rashab’s words about a chassid who sits on bench like this: A chassid may have lost his rebbe physically, but spiritually the Rebbe is right before us.

Indeed, the Rebbe continues to be very much present in our lives.