For summer bein hazemanim, he attended the old Camp Mesivta, which left an indelible impression upon him. He made the acquaintance of some of the most choshuve bochurim there: Rav Don Ungarischer, Rav Simcha Schustal and, ybl”c, Reb Bentzion Shenker. In addition to the lively ruach haTorah,the Shabbos seudos, he said, were heavenly, with the most beautiful niggunim sung with harmony and dveikus.
When he returned to yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir called him into his room and asked him to teach him the new niggunim that he picked up during the summer. Yes, the rosh yeshiva, who had many things on his head, from yeshiva matters, to issues regarding Klal Yisroel, and of course his own avodas Hashem, found it necessary to take out time to learn new niggunim. Because for baalei avodah, a good niggun isn’t a form of entertainment, but rather a conduit for coming closer to Hashem.
The great Torah pioneer and mentor of roshei yeshiva and mechanchim, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, said: “The velt says that the word chazzan is roshei teivos for chazzanim zenen naaranim, chazzanim are fools. Why are they considered fools? Because in Shomayim, the Heichal Haneginah is right next to the Heichal Hateshuvah. If the chazzan, who is within the hall of neginah, is so close to the hall of teshuvah, why doesn’t he enter it and become a complete baal teshuvah?
To this, Rav Shraga Feivel commented: “If the velt would realize just how deep the Heichal Haneginah is, they would understand that it is quite difficult to just walk out of it and enter another room.”
Just how vast and deep is the Heichal Haneginah is beyond our perception, but a few words from the Vilna Gaon should give us a little bit of an idea about the depth of music. The Gaon said that most of the reasons for Torah, the secrets of the songs of the Leviim, and the secrets of tikkunei haZohar cannot be understood without the chochmah of music. Music is so powerful that, in its purest form, it has the ability to take one’s life, as its beauty can draw the soul from its body. Conversely, it has the potency to revive the dead with the secrets that are hidden in the Torah.
The Gaon had mastered all of the worldly chochmos in their entirety, including geometry, algebra, astronomy and medicine. The most profound of all of these, he said, was music, in which he was also fluent. He explained that each string on a fiddle represents a different level of chochmah and that the full extent of music will be revealed to us when the world reaches perfection (Hagaon, Volume 2, page 56a).
Music has the power of revitalizing the soul when one is feeling down. When the spirit of Hashem departed from Shaul Hamelech and he was tormented by a spirit of melancholy, his servant, Dovid, would play the harp and it would relieve the king of his misery (Shmuel I 16:23). When the novi Elisha became angry at Yehoram, the king of Yisroel, his spirit of nevuah left him. He said, “And now bring me a musician. It happened that as the musician played, the Hand of Hashem came upon him (Melachim II 3:15).
In fact, music was necessary for the prophets to be capable of receiving nevuah. The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 7:4)writes: “All of the neviim could not prophesize whenever they wanted to. Rather, they would sit and concentrate amidst joy and goodness of heart in solitude. For prophecy does not rest on a person amidst sadness or laziness, only amidst happiness. Therefore, the sons of prophets would have before them a lyre, a drum, a flute, and a harp in order to seek out nevuah.”
We have a distinct mesorah from Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai how various mitzvos should be performed and how they should look. The measurements of the Torah, for example, and the dinim of shechitah are halachos leMoshe miSinai. Would you believe that music, too, was passed down to us from Moshe miSinai? As amazing as this seems, this is indeed the case. The Gaon says that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Sinai several distinct niggunim. All other niggunim composed throughout the generations are blends of those sounds.
In light of this information, we should ask ourselves: What is our outlook on music? Is it merely a pastime, a means for relaxation and entertainment? Or do we treat it as an instrument of inspiration and getting closer to Hashem? If the answer is the latter, does the Jewish music available today create closeness to Hashem? Can we honestly say that it is based on those niggunim that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Har Sinai or is it highly influenced by what is available in the secular world today?
Why is this of such importance, you ask, when it is only music? There are two points here, sur meitov and asei ra. Sur meitov is turning away from good by taking a pure and beneficial present from Hashem and not utilizing it for what it was meant to be. There are beautiful tunes composed by people of depth and spirituality whose niggunim literally translate the words of the pesukim. They make our neshamos soar and illicit deep emotions from within, often bringing us to tears. On the other hand, there are so-called Jewish tunes taken from or influenced by musicians of the secular world. Are these the kind of people you want interpreting our holy words of Tanach or Chazal? Is it really possible for their music to inspire us to holiness?
Conversely, you have the asei ra. If music from a holy source has such immense power over the neshamah in a positive way, then it stands to reason that tunes emanating from an unholy source can have a terribly adverse effect. We needn’t go into great detail describing the immoral lifestyle of the characters involved in the secular music industry. Their music is a manifestation of their inner essence, which any G-d-fearing Jew should avoid like the plague.
There are those who claim that making Jewish music available with a modern hip beat is a positive thing, because by making music more palatable for today’s generation, it prevents them from straying to foreign pastures and listening to the real tumah. It is hard to argue with a “frumme” cheshbon, but the fact remains that the secular influence is still there. Why are those who tremble at the mere thought of exposing their children to any improper hashkafah or any food not under the most stringent hashgachah so cavalier with music that is not in tune with ruach Yisroel sabah?
In a recently-released biography about the holy gaon and tzaddik Rav Itzele Peterburger, the following story is related. Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, the venerable mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva, would give a shmuez to the talmidim at every Simchas Bais Hoshoeivah on Sukkos. On one day of Chol Hamoed Sukkos in 1936, Rav Yeruchem got up to speak as usual, but this time he had a surprise for the talmidim. He wanted to teach them a new niggun, a very special niggun, a niggun straight from Gan Eden.
Rav Yeruchem related that the night before, Rav Itzele appeared to him in a dream (twenty years after his petirah) and taught him a special niggun to the words of “Ashrei ish shelo yishkocheka,”a posuk that we say in the bracha of Zichronos on Rosh Hashanah. Rav Yeruchem learned the niggun well and taught it to his talmidim, who sang it together with him for hours. Rav Yeruchem exclaimed: “This is a pure niggun taken from the Heichal Haneginah in Gan Eden.”
Many years later, one of those talmidim, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, tried teaching the very same song to his talmidim, but he encountered great difficulty. For some reason, they could not catch on to the niggun. Finally, after a while, they got it and sang it successfully.
Rav Nosson commented that the reason they could not grasp the niggun was probably because their heads were filled with tunes that are not from pure sources. Therefore, they could not easily learn a pure niggun saturated with yirah and bitachon (Rav Itzele Peterburger, page 552).
For those who are skeptical of the negative impact of music, here’s another one: A number of years ago, it was reported that one of the national zoos that had music playing on its speakers stopped using the music of the German composer and Nazi sympathizer Richard Wagner. The zoo attendants noticed that whenever his music was played, the animals became restless and ornery and were harder to manage. Could it be that the animals understood something about music that we don’t?
Does anyone doubt the complexity of the human body and its various systems that keep us alive? Countless books have been published on medicine, hygiene, exercise and nutrition, instructing us how to maintain optimum health. The dynamics of the neshamah are much more complex, and we were given the Torah both biksav and baal peh, with all of the seforim throughout the generations, to learn how to nurture it and keep it pure.
Normally, a person would not operate an intricate mechanism without reading the manual properly and closely following its instructions. We, too, have a manual of operation for our neshamos: the mesorah passed down to us throughout the generations. Fortunately, we even have a mesorah on neginah and we would be wise to follow it in order for it to impact properly on our penimiyus.