Monday, September 18, 2006
The Niggun that Saved a Soul Centuries Later
Rebbe Yechiel Michel's father , Rabbi Yitzchak of Drohovitch, initially an opponent of Chassidus, became an ardent admirer of the Baal Shem Tov. Young Yechiel Michel received instruction from the Baal Shem Tov, becoming one of his most prominent disciples. After the Baal Shem Tov's passing, Rebbe Yechiel Michel became a student of the Maggid of Mezritch. A master of homiletics and a spellbinding orator, he was a much sought-after preacher and lecturer.
The Zlatchover Maggid was largely responsible for introducing Chassidus to the Jews of Galicia. He founded a multi-branched dynasty and had numerous prestigious students. Foremost among them were Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta, also known as the Ohev Yisrael, and Rebbe Mordechai of Neshchiz, known as the Rishpei Aish.
We have a few niggunim composed by Rebbe Yechiel Michel. On the Breslov recording, Asader L’Seudasa, Track 6 is titled, “Niggun of Reb Mich’l Zlotchover”. On the liner notes, Ben-Zion Solomon writes, “According to Breslover tradition, this is the dveykus niggun with which the holy Reb Mich’l Zlotchover left the world during the Third Meal of Shabbos…Other texts were also sung to the niggun, but its beauty and power are most obvious when it is sung without words – as Reb Mich’l himself sang it.”
Chabad has a niggun of his, which is also referred to as the Niggun of Rachamim Rabim. On this link you can hear that the Baal Shem Tov said of his talmid, Rebbe Michel, that he often visited the Heavenly Chamber of Music [Heichal HaNegina] and collected niggunim of dveykus and yearning. The Maharash of Chabad [Rebbe Shmuel] once remarked that in this niggun one can perceive the Baal Shem Tov. But this niggun had an effect that went way beyond the Chassidim of Chabad in Rebbe Michel’s time and afterwards. Which brings us to our story…
How Rebbe Yechiel Michel’s Niggun Saved a Soul – Centuries Later
The founders themselves did not know where things would lead, but a whole year of working out of their apartments – with students sleeping on the floor, rotating kitchens for the meals and using different shuls as classrooms, was draining them of energy and focus. Finally, R. Shaul Leiter announced he would take the plunge and voyage overseas to try to raise funds to rent a building. The rest cheered and promptly elected him Executive Director. He proved himself worthy and in October of 1984, Ascent opened in a four-apartment courtyard. They remained there until the Summer of 1990.
Today, Ascent owns a 12,000 square foot former hotel with 85 beds, an industrial-sized kitchen, a dining room, three levels of porches, a synagogue, and a Jewish library and multi-media center on premises; and runs comprehensive programs for English, Hebrew and Russian speakers. Last year, nearly 7,000 visitors and residents passed through Ascent, which is located in the most picturesque part of the Old City of Tzfat.
The following story is from an interview with Chaya Bracha Leiter that I found in a Chabad internet publication.
Countless people have passed through Ascent with so many stories. Is there one story in particular that you want to tell us?
“Six years ago an American girl came to Ascent on her way back from India. She wore layers of filthy orange clothes, was barefoot, had numerous earrings and hair that looked like a bird’s nest. It took me some time to get used to her and I kept telling myself to look at her neshama [soul] and not at her outward appearance.
“I began talking to her and saw that she was intelligent and refined. She stayed with us for Shabbos, and at the Melave Malka meal [post-Shabbos] played her violin. She didn’t know a single Jewish song but she played like an angel. I knew how important it was to be mekarev a person from where they are at.
The Baal Shem Tov promised that he would listen to whoever sang the niggun in whatever Spiritual Palace he was in, in the Supernal Worlds, and would ask for great mercy for him.
“We sang the niggun together a few times. It was an incredible spiritual experience. When we finished, I gave her a book of Tehillim even though she barely knew how to read Hebrew, and I went back to Ascent. She remained at the gravesite until four in the morning and prayed.
She explained that the clothing had ideological meaning for her, and that it was her way of negating materiality and yearning for spirituality.
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