The holy court of Modzhitz needs no introduction and is perhaps renowned chiefly through its soul-stirring melodies and songs which resound through the world wherever there are Jews of Torah and tefilloh. Here we will dedicate our lines to the source and wisdom behind this music, the first Rebbe of Modzhitz.
Like a lilting melody whose beauty is heard from the very first notes, Rabbi Yisroel's talents in Torah wisdom were evident at a young age. When he was a bochur, the Torah luminaries of his time named him a chad bedoro — unique in the generation — and predicted a great future for him.
It was from the vast expanse and profound breadth of his chochmas haTorah that the Rebbe learned his chochmas haneginoh.
He had no music teacher, no one to teach him the notes and techniques. The elderly chassidim would say that the Torah itself taught the Rebbe music, for as we know, every wisdom in this world can be found in the holy Torah. It is no wonder then that the Modzhitzer niggunim are treated with sacred respect by all.
The Rebbe used his power of song to arouse many Yidden to teshuvoh, returning their hearts to Hashem. When he was asked how it is that a niggun can bring Yidden to repent where all the sifrei mussar failed, the Rebbe replied with a heartwarming moshol:
A villager who worked hard in a flour mill to earn his livelihood once visited the big city.
Wide-eyed, he traversed the city's main road, absorbing all its sights and sounds with wonder. All at once, an interesting gadget in a large store window caught his attention. The item was a clock that, if set for a certain hour, would ring, awakening its owner! Phenomenal! The simple villager's thoughts ran back to early mornings at home. How difficult it was to rise at the crack of dawn to work the flour mill. Having barely rested his aching bones from the previous day's labors, he often opened his eyes to the rising sun, only to close them again and turn over for a "little while longer." But arriving late for work meant losing money.
And here was the solution to his problem. In his mind's eye, our friend already saw himself jumping out of bed at the shrill sound of the ringing clock!
The salesman was duly surprised to see a poor-looking villager requesting such an expensive clock, but the latter explained that he needed it to awaken him for his work at the flour mill.
"I don't understand," posed the storekeeper. "If the great noise and pounding of the grinder doesn't waken you, how do you expect the pleasant tone of the clock to do the job?"
"It's quite obvious," replied the villager. "The sound of the grinding may be forceful and strong, but I am so accustomed to it that I sleep right through. The pleasant ringing tone of the clock, however, I am not used to and I am sure that it will succeed in rousing me even from a deep slumber."
Continued the Modzhitzer Rebbe,
"We are the simple villager. Our senses are already dulled to the sound of mussar that thunders from the holy Torah and seforim. Our souls have become insensitive to them, for we are used to hearing them. It is in this lowly state that we need the pleasant tones of music to awaken our souls from the stupor of sin and to do teshuvoh."
Rabbenu often said that we must sing to Hashem not only in moments of joy and gratitude, but also in times of sorrow.
Quoting the posuk in Tehillim, "And Hashem saw in their sorrow, when He heard their joyous singing (rinosom)," he asked, "Where is there joyous singing when Yisroel is in trouble?"
He then answered his own question, "Seeing that Miriam Haneviah and the women took our their cymbals and tambourines to sing immediately after Krias Yam Suf, the Midrash asks how they had these musical instruments with them. We are told then that they took them out of Mitzrayim with them. Although they knew that the danger was not over, they had full bitochon that there would still be great nissim. In essence they sang to Hashem while still in the tzoroh, relying on His help."
In his sefer, Divrei Yisroel al haTorah, Rabbeinu brings the posuk, "Kechu lochem mizimras ho'oretz," and explains that although the pshat refers to fruits of Eretz Yisroel, according to remez it means shirah vezimrah. It is from here that the Rebbe derives and explains the seven basic music notes according to Torah in connection with the seven days of creation, the seven planets and the mussar haskel hidden in all these.
The Rebbe taught his niggunim to the chassidim and was extremely particular that they not change even the slightest nuance. This was not only because of the rules of music but more so due to the various remozim that were passed down with the songs by word of mouth personally — the kavonos behind each melodious line.
Many are the Modzhitzer niggunim that have become part and parcel of the holy tefillos all over the world. The thirty-two-versed song on the words "Ezkeroh Elokim ve'ehemoyoh . . . " was composed by the Rebbe in the year 5673 (1913). At the time Rabbeinu was ill and was to undergo an operation on his foot. He traveled to Berlin where the operation was to take place. Upon his first encounter with the beautiful city that it was then, he composed the abovementioned song.
In it the lyrics and stirring tune express our pain and sorrow, "When I see every city built high on its hill and the city of Hashem is degraded until the depths . . . " While his foot was being operated on the Rebbe sang, transcending this world of physical pain and rising to a place where only the yearning of his soul mattered.
So taken by his song was he that he felt neither the pain of the knife, nor the relief of the completion of the operation, but continued singing as the doctor finished and began packing his surgical instruments.
Another famous tune was the one composed during World War One. Rabbeinu was in Warsaw at the time, where he saw hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jewish refugees bereft of home and possessions wandering from place to place without a roof over their heads. His special song brought a ray of light into their lives and comfort and hope in their hearts.
His koach haneginah remained with him to his last day, including the day the Rebbe passed away.
Lying on his deathbed on 13 Kislev, the Rebbe was wracked with the agony of his illness. His son, the next Rebbe, Reb Shaul Yedidya zt"l, stood before him while Reb Yisroel sang to him the special melodies he had composed for the Yomim Noraim that past year.
He sang and sang until his neshomoh left him and rose to the Yeshiva Shel Ma'aloh.