All in a Rav’s Day – Harav Moshe Chaim Lau, Shlita

Harav Moshe Chaim Lau

A Niggun From Shamayim

Perhaps the most famous of the 13 fundamental Principles of Faith that the Rambam listed in his Commentary to the Mishnah is the 12th: “I believe with perfect faith in the arrival of Moshiach, and although he may tarry, I will wait for him daily to arrive.” These words express the constant and conscious hope in Jews’ hearts for Moshiach’s appearance ever since the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. It is our hope and dream to merit our final and permanent Redemption.

The Gemara (Pesachim 54) lists the “name of Moshiach” as one of the seven things that came into being even before the creation of the world. The Imrei Emes of Gur, zt”l, pointed out that the Gemara emphasizes the name “Moshiach.” What is the significance of the term Moshiach being created at that time? Are we waiting for Moshiach himself, or are we waiting for the Redemption that he will bring?
To answer this, the Rebbe reminded us that we have endured this terrible galus for almost two millennia. Although Moshiach has not yet appeared, if we did not keep his name on our lips daily, feeling confident that he might arrive at any moment, we would never have been able to survive our suffering. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many tunes have been composed to the words Ani maamin b’emunah sheleimah…

The most famous and winning tune for Ani maamin is unquestionably the one composed by Hachassid Reb Azriel Dovid Fastag, Hy”d. Reb Azriel Dovid was the main chazzan in the great Modzitzer shtiebel in Warsaw, and he composed dozens of tunes. He was charismatic and attracted young Chassidim who were mesmerized by his emotional davening and his leadership qualities.

When we were children, our grandfather, Harav Yitzchak Yedidya Frankel, zt”l, fascinated us with stories of his years in the yeshivah of Harav Menachem Ziemba, Hy”d, and of the Warsaw Jewish community in those days. More than once, his stories included his description of the great chazzan, Reb Azriel Dovid.
There are numerous versions describing the origin of the tune for Ani Maamin, but the one that seems most authentic is that Reb Azriel Dovid was on a train headed from the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw to Treblinka in 1942. Thousands of Jews had been stuffed into the cattle cars — men, women and children who had endured three years of suffering in the Warsaw Ghetto. The conditions in the cars were unbearable, with no water and with very little air, so that every few minutes another poor Jew breathed his last.

It was during these depressing moments that a new niggun was created. Crouched on the floor of the train car with everyone else, Reb Azriel Dovid’s mind was somewhere else altogether. His spirit rose into the Shaar Haneginos beneath the Kisei Hakavod and he began singing. The strains of his song lifted his fellow Jews from their suffering to a world of purity and peace. At one point, Reb Azriel Dovid stood up and promised half of his share in Olam Haba to the person who would memorize this tune and bring it to the Modzitzer Rebbe, Harav Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub, zy”a, who had managed to escape war-torn Europe and was residing in New York.

Two inspired youngsters volunteered. They tore open the small window in the cattle car and jumped out of the moving train to the side of the tracks. Tragically, one of the teenagers failed to survive the jump, but the other one made it safely and ran away. Eventually, he managed to make his way to New York. He sang the tune for the Modzitzer Rebbe, who wrote down the music and gave it to the famous chazzan, Reb Ben Tzion Shenker, z”l, to sing it at the bris of the Rebbe’s grandson.

All those present were swept away with the strength of the niggun. The Rebbe remarked, with tears streaming down his face, that Jews sang this niggun on their final journey, and with this niggun we will greet Moshiach. Soon afterward, the niggun had spread throughout the Jewish world. To this day, 80 years later, whenever Jews gather, this niggun takes them to a higher place, even if they have grown distant from Torah and mitzvos.

Although my father, Harav Yisrael Meir Lau, shlita, was a Holocaust survivor himself, his memories were not echoed in our home. We grew up like any other family in Eretz Yisrael. During the time I was learning in Yeshivas Kol Torah, I returned home for a Shabbos, and like any other bachur, I brought home new niggunim I had learned to introduce them to my family. Only recently had a certain niggun for Ani maamin become popular in the yeshivah, and I sang it at home for my parents. When I finished, my father commented, “There is only one way to explain the words of Ani maamin, and that is how Reb Azriel Dovid Fastag interpreted them. All the other tunes to these words are nice, but this niggun tells us exactly what the words really mean.”

As I grew older, I thought long and hard about this comment. I wondered why this niggun had become such a beloved classic whose popularity has never waned. Perhaps the secret lies in the amazing story of Rabba bar Nachmani found in Bava Metzia (86): A debate about a halachah developed in the Yeshivah shel Maalah between its scholars and Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and it was decided to summon Rabba bar Nachmani to settle the dispute. Rabba was reviewing those halachos at that time, and when he reached the particular halachah in question, his soul was snatched and taken on high. The last word he uttered on earth was tahor, thus confirming that the opinion of Hakadosh Baruch Hu was correct. A voice rang out from Heaven declaring, “You are fortunate, Rabba bar Nachmani, for your body is tahor and your soul left it with the word tahor.”

Despite this, the Rambam ruled that the halachah is that this case is tamei, not tahor. The Kesef Mishneh noted that the Rambam ruled against the opinion of Hakadosh Baruch Hu and of Rabba bar Nachmani, and he explained that this is based on the principle of Lo baShamayim hi — we follow the halachah as it is decided here on earth, not as it is decided in Heaven. Although Rabba bar Nachmani ruled tahor while here on earth, his ruling has the status of a ruling issued in Shamayim, not one issued on earth, because his soul was about to be taken from him at that moment.

This teaches us that in a tzaddik’s final moments on earth, he is already considered to be in Heaven, and his words at that time are actually the words of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. I believe that we can say the same regarding the niggun of Reb Azriel Dovid. He composed it during the final hours of his life, and although his soul was still connected to his body it had already risen to some lofty level in Shamayim. The niggun he composed at that time came from somewhere in Gan Eden, and this explains why it has such power. As the Modzitzer Rebbe commented, Jews sang this niggun on their final journey to the gas chambers, and with this niggun we will soon meet Moshiach. Amein.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau serves as a Rav in Netanya, Israel.

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