Inspiring Stories Surrounding a Soulful Song
I heard the story of the soulful melody (or niggun in Hebrew) from Rabbi Eli Silberstein of Ithaca New York, reprinted her with his permission and told in his words. The song is called “The Wallach of Reb Notteh of Pahar.” It is sung by Reb Shmuel Betzalel Althaus, a legendary chassid who upon leaving Russia was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Australia.
Rabbi Eli tells over the Yiddish words of the story with some additions:
Reb Notteh came to Lubavitch as a young bochur in 1902. After a brief test by the administration of the yeshiva (led then by the Previous Rebbe,) he was rejected. In those days they only accepted highly intelligent and diligent students to the yeshiva.
When Notteh leaned about the rejection, he was very saddened and went to a side room of the the yeshiva’s main study hall where several hundred students were deep in their studies of Talmud. He started singing this wallach. Notteh had an extraordinary sweet voice. The students in the study hall heard his singing and were mesmerized. Pretty soon the whole study hall became quiet while everyone was listens to the deep soulful melody. The person in charge of admissions saw this and realized what was going on. It made a deep impression on him and he decided to accept the new student. Reb Notteh ended up founding a very popular Capella choir of yeshiva students.
In 1945, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe told a story that referenced this song. In the year 1903 on 19 Kislev there was a big celebration in the city of Lubavitch. That day was one of celebration of the release of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liad, the Alter Rebbe, from prison for having spread the teachings of Chassidut. At the time Rabbi Shalom Dovber (known as the Rashab) was the fifth Chabad Rebbe. The students made a special celebration in honor of the holiday. They built a decorative entrance to the Yeshiva and connected 613 candles along the street from the Rebbe’s house all the way to the Yeshiva. The Rebbe Rashab had to walk along that path to come to conduct his soulful gathering of song, story and teaching in the Yeshiva. They set the candles such that when one lit one candle, all 613 would light up. At the entrance they built an arch where they placed Reb Notteh as well as a conductor.
As the Rebbe began walking to the yeshiva, someone lit the first candle and within a moment all 613 candles lit up. At that moment, Reb Notteh began singing along with the entire Capella group. He sang this particular song in a mesmerizing way and the event made a huge impact on the crowd.
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe replaced his father as leader after the Rashab’s passing in 1920. As his ancestors, he too was imprisoned for teaching Torah. In 1928 he had just come out of prison and was about to leave Russia. It was to be the Chassidim’s last Shabbat together with their Rebbe and was a very emotional day. Hundreds of Chassidim had come to bid their Rebbe goodbye. The Rebbe shared words of encouragement with them. One of the things he said was, “Look at this image (referring to himself.) This image sees things as they are in the Garden of Eden – only good.” He was letting them know that unlike most of us who are blinded by the limitations of the world, his soul was bound Above and he perceived everything in a good way.
At that gathering, the Rebbe turned to Reb Notteh and said to him, “Sing the samech gimmel” (the song that had been sung in 1903.)” Reb Notteh began to sing. People cried from joy or sadness. Those from joy because they remembered the incredible scenery of the heyday of Lubavitch with learning, Chassidut, Divine service and Chassidic gatherings. They were filled with longing. Others cried because they knew it was likely the last Shabbos they would see the Rebbe. It was a very emotional Shabbat. The wallach of Reb Notteh gave it additional emotional charge.”
I find the song and the stories moving. And I think they hold many lessons for all of us, some of which are:
When schools have standards, it adds to the preciousness of what they offer
When I came to America, I was consistently encouraged to upgrade students. A “B” was considered terrible and a “C” reason to weep. As a result, our grading scale was 90-100 with 90 becoming the equivalent of a D or low C and 100 an A. To receive A+ teachers were encouraged to give “bonus” marks and so some students in the school received grades of 120/100! It was ridiculous in my eyes – an abandonment of education and a betrayal of the students. Not everyone is an A-student. They are an A-something and we have to work to help them shine. But we do them a disservice by puffing up mediocre work.
Great educators are able to move beyond their own rules for a higher good
Rules are made to be enforced. And in some cases to be ruled upon leniently. There is a saying that the greater the Rabbi, the more leniently he can rule. It takes wisdom and humility to be able to rule lightly and even more so to break a rule such that it builds rather than breaks both the individual and the community.
When in pain, it is best to pour that pain into a holy channel. Singing to G-d trumps ranting, venting and rage
Reb Notteh could have become angry or depressed. His response was neither. When he went into the room adjacent to the study hall, he had “accepted” his rejection. This acceptance of authority and embracing of failure is a far cry from the entitlement that characterizes so much of social discourse at the moment. Instead of raging, he turned to
G-d and self-soothed through prayerful song. His humility generated a wave of impact that continued over decades.
Our physical environment impacts the soul and it is worthwhile to invest thought and effort in creating beauty
Religiosity does not mean a neglect of one’s environment. We are encouraged to “beautify a commandment” as evident in our candelabra, our Four Species for Sukkot and so on. It extends to our larger environment too. Recently my son held a Chassidic gathering for his students at our home. I helped him set up with salt-rock candles, low incandescent lighting, a linen cloth and beautiful dishes. We also prepared a fire in the fireplace for the students. The boys were visibly taken by their surroundings. And thereby they also became more receptive to what was being taught.
Try to see the good in everything – take a Garden of Eden Eye View of Reality to the best of your ability
This of course is the most difficult piece of all. We have to work to take ourselves out of ourselves. It takes effort to see beyond the appearance of reality and connect deeply with the truth that “It’s all good.” Remembering the motto “Progress not perfection” is helpful. As is remembering our spiritual leaders, the true ones whose souls have never become restrained by the limitations of a physical universe.
The story of the students’ celebration of the holiday Yud Tes Kislev reminded me of the work of a remarkable contemporary singer and Chassid. His name is Chony Milecki. Twice now he has arranged a massive Jewish Unity Concert to celebrate the Year of Unity that occurs once in 7 years. With an entire block of a major thoroughfare blocked off, Eastern Parkway is transformed into a glittering, soulful space. It was this I was reminded of upon hearing the story of the students and their 613 candles.