Tuesday, December 13, 2005
the first Modzitzer Rebbe - Admor HaRav Yisrael Taub Zt”l, often known by the name of his sefer, the Divrei Yisrael. There are many stories told about his piety, his Torah knowledge, and his musical prowess. The most famous of all - which combines all three of these traits - is the story of his magnum opus – the niggun, Ezkera.
The Rebbe was a diabetic, and the doctors felt that he should go to Karlsbad for the baths - to help the circulation in his feet. In 1910, while in Karlsbad during the summer, the Rebbe went for a stroll on a hill near a wellspring of water. The Rebbe was amazed at the beauty of the resort, as opposed to Yerushalayim that was in ruins. He remembered the stanza from Selichos [the penitential prayers recited in Elul] and Neila [the concluding prayer of the Yom Kippur services] that mentions these two concepts -
Ezkera Elokim v'ehemaya
I remember L-rd and I painfully groan
Birosi kol ir al tila benuya
As I see every city, built to beautiful great heights
V'ir Elokim mushpeles ad Sheol tachtiya
But the city of the L-rd has been lowered to the deepest purgatory
U'bchol zos anu l’Kah v’eineinu l’Kah
But despite it all, we belong to G-d, and our eyes look to Him
- and he expressed his heartfelt emotions and the stirring of his soul, by composing a moving musical setting for these words. On the way home, he told his entourage that he was not returning empty-handed, and that he had achieved much on his trip. He added that concepts of music and negina that he never had before were revealed to him in Karlsbad. When the Rebbe came home, he told his family that he had brought them a souvenir from Karlsbad - the tune for Ezkera. The Modzitzer Chassidim call this melody Ezkera HaKatan - the short Ezkera.
As beautiful as the composition was, the Rebbe felt he had not done the text full justice. In 1911, while in Karlsbad, the Rebbe said he tried to compose another composition for the text, but he felt that the Yetzer Hara [evil inclination] was interfering too much. In 1912 - again in Karlsbad - many wondrous motifs and themes came to the Rebbe. The Rebbe used them to start a new setting for Ezkera, but he was not able to complete the composition at the time, he felt that there was a Divine decree preventing him from completing it.*
The condition of his feet was constantly worsening, to the point that in the fall of 1913 he developed gangrene on one of his feet. The disease spread, and the Rebbe was in almost constant pain. A group of specialists were consulted, who felt that the leg should be amputated. The family was afraid to make the decision on their own. The Rebbe called them in and told them, "I'm also allowed to say what I feel about the situation. I think the best thing would be to take me to Berlin." Many of the Chassidic Rebbes - as well as his Chassidim - came to wish him well. The Amshinover Rebbe encapsulated everyone’s hopes and prayers saying, "In the merit of your prayers and niggunim, which stimulate thousands of Jews to repent, the L-rd should send you respite from your pain and a cure."
The Rebbe went to Berlin for medical consultation. A private sleeping car was chartered, in which the Rebbe traveled while lying down, in great pain. As the Rebbe was not able to fall asleep due to the pain, he requested his sefer HaZohar [the Book of Splendor, Jewish mysticism]. He said, "Let the pains at least be yesurim shel ahava - pains given from love (see Brachos 5b) - which are without bitul Torah [a cessation of Torah learning]."
Within two days of his arrival, it was decided that an immediate amputation was necessary. Due to the Rebbe's weak heart, it was almost impossible to anesthetize him – as too much anesthesia would have permanently stopped his heart. Throughout the surgery and recovery, the Rebbe sang many different musical motifs to allay the terrible pain. Whenever the pain was overwhelming and tears came to the Rebbe's eyes, Professor Israels - the surgeon who performed the amputation - heard him say, "Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the World]." Once the Rebbe turned his head and saw a vista of Berlin, and was heard chanting a stanza of the Ezkera.
The Imrei Shaul relates that throughout the operation, Professor Israels did not hear any moans or groans from the Rebbe, but only heard him humming or singing. On one of the professor’s rounds of visits to the Rebbe, he told him, “Rebbe, I just chastised a government minister who is hospitalized here, and is constantly crying out and screaming over his pain. I told him that in another room, there is a Rabbi whose pain exceeds yours, and he is humming and singing.”
“I am also crying and screaming,” answered the Rebbe, “but in order that these Jewish cries are not in vain, I attach them to a song, to honor the Creator.”
While recovering - during the winter of 1914 - he went for a ride in a carriage with two of his sons. While on the Alexanderplatz, a gentile yelled at him, "Jude gehe nach Palestina (Jew, go to Palestine)." The Rebbe was taken aback. Here, in one of the greatest cities in the world, anti-Semitism was alive and thriving! The Rebbe told his sons, "This is a Divine sign that it is time to sing the Ezkera.* When David HaMelech [King David] said, ‘I am happy when I'm told let's go to the House of the L-rd’, the Zohar says that the lowest people of the generation told him to go there. Though it was said in derision, David HaMelech was happy about it." This was the debut of the melody known as Ezkera HaGadol - the long Ezkera.
The Rebbe himself told the story when he came back to Warsaw, at the end of the winter of 1914. At a Seudas Hoda’ah - meal of thanksgiving - he told over the story and with the help of his sons sang the long Ezkera melody. The Rebbe concluded by saying that he felt he had finally composed a melody appropriate to the text.*
*Note: from these three parts of the story indicated above with an asterisk, it should be obvious that this niggun is a very special one, and cannot be sung under all circumstances. In fact, Modzitz tradition has it that the Divrei Yisrael put a schloss - a lock - on the niggun. Due to its complexity, not everyone can sing this niggun on his own. This majestic and lengthy niggun is comprised of no less than thirty-six [36!] sections, each contrasting in nature. The niggun is sung by Chassidim each year on the Rebbe's yahrzeit (anniversary of death) both in Israel and the United States. The niggun takes approximately twenty to twenty-five minutes to sing. Usually, one of the senior Chassidim in Modzitz, who has been initiated into learning the niggun fully and correctly, leads it, and the rest of the Chassidim and the Rebbe sing along with him. Attempts by others to perform this niggun, whether orchestrally or vocally, have all failed miserably.
Whenever a Chassid who knew niggunim, especially a Modzitzer Chassid, came before Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza Zt”l, he would ask him to sing the Ezkera niggun, and tears would stream from his eyes. After the petira [passing] of the Divrei Yisrael, he proclaimed, “There’s what to envy the Modzitzer Rebbe Zt”l for. He left the world a tremendous treasure, his niggunim.”
The Ostrovtzer’s Chassidim were astonished by his words. “Rebbe, what about your Torahs?” they asked.
In his pure humility, the Ostrovtza Rebbe answered, “Nobody was aroused by my Torah. But from the Modzitzer Rebbe Zt”l’s niggunim, everyone’s heart was aroused to Teshuva [repentance].
Besides the sefer Divrei Yisrael, a Chassidic interpretation of the Chumash [Breishis, Shemos and Vayikra; unfortunately, Bamidbar and Devarim were lost], the Rebbe wrote Klalei Oraysoh, a Chassidic interpretation of the rules found in the Talmud, and a commentary on the Pesach Haggada.
[I am indebted to R. Yehuda Nathan of Flatbush, a Modzitzer Chassid, who has written most of the material above. Most of it is a translation from the account of the Ezkera found in the sefer Imrei Shaul (by the Rebbe's son and successor, Rebbe Shaul). I have made some slight editorial changes, and additions where I found it necessary].
Some of Rebbe Yisrael's niggunim [he composed a few hundred, although some have been lost] can be found on the Modzitz website, as follows:
The Vald [forest] niggun, composed while traveling through the forest in 1917.
Mizmor L'David, or Song of the Homeless, composed in 1914. The story of this niggun is here.
Amar Hashem L'Yaakov [from Motzaei Shabbos niggunim]. Also used for Modzitzer [and other] Chupa [wedding] processionals, composed in 1890. Another version, instrumental only, is here.
Zechuso yagein Aleinu – May the merit of Rebbe Yisrael of Modzitz protect us all!
You will not find it on the 'Net nor in a music store. As I hinted in the "Note" to this piece, this niggun is carefully guarded. The only way to hear it is to come to the Seudas Hilula [in Israel, it was last night in Bnei Brak]. In New York, it is usually sung at Rebbe Shaul's yahrzeit seuda, which is this coming Shabbos.
Anon, please read my previous reply to you carefully, thanks!
I am very interested in discussing this with you privately. Could you give me a phone number or e-mail address where we can chat privately? Thanks
When I was a Bochur back in the Mid 80's I was at a couple of Yahrzeit Seudas in Flatbush and Heard the Ezkerah Nigun By R' Ben Zion. Outstanding!!!
R' Shlomo Carlebach was at one of the Seudos as well and he was in Dveykus throughout.
please respect the sanctity of this piece of music/prayer. I find it important to have the words in mind if one is to get anything out if it. It is nothing like being there, I'm sure, but at least you have the sketch of what Ezkeroh sounds like.
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