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Shiur #26: The Niggun (I): The Niggun Of the Righteous and the Wicked

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction To The Thought Of Rav Nachman Of Breslov
Yeshivat Har Etzion

By Rav Itamar Eldar

Shiur #26: The Niggun (I): The Niggun Of the Righteous and the Wicked

Continuing along in teaching no. 64, we come to section 5, which introduces the last topic that we shall deal with in the context of this teaching - namely, the idea of niggun (song, melody).


In our usual manner, before we begin to analyze the section itself, we shall examine R. Nachman's fundamental understanding of everything connected to niggun.

We shall begin with the following:

Behold, when someone listens to the singing of a singer who is wicked, it is detrimental to his serving the Creator. But when he listens to a singer who is virtuous and worthy, it helps him, as will be explained.

The reason for this is that the voice of song is drawn from the birds. As we find in the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba, 16): Why is the purification of a metzora (leper) dependent upon two live birds? Let the chatterer come and atone for the chatterer. For he was stricken on account of his voice, which spoke lashon hara (slander).

We see, then, that the virtuous person draws his song from the two live pure birds. Thus it is written in the Zohar (III, 53b) that these two birds derive their nourishment from the same place that the prophets do theirs. This is why a singer is called a chazan, from the word chazon, which connotes prophecy. [The chazan] takes his song from the same place that the prophets derive their nourishment.

But when a singer is wicked, he takes his song from other birds, from those of the kelipa (evil forces). Thus it is written in the Zohar (I, 217b) that the birds of the kelipot nurse from the breasts of Malkhut (Kingship). When midnight comes, a cry goes out, "As birds are caught in a trap, so are the children of man ensnared" (Kohelet 9:12). (Likutei Moharan Kama 3)

R. Nachman opens with a point that we shall yet have opportunity to return to below, namely, that a niggun serves as an instrument in the hands of the wicked and in the hands of the righteous. But before we analyze this assertion, let us note that R. Nachman himself explains the underlying assumption of what he is saying. He mentions the two live pure birds that are used to purify the metzora. We shall open our analysis of this idea with a discussion of the simple meaning of the biblical text.

Regarding the metzora, the Torah states:

This shall be the Torah of the one stricken with tzara'at in the day of his cleaning. He shall be brought to the priest; and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look, and behold, if the plague of tzara'at be healed in the one afflicted. Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop. And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running (lit., "live") water. As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. And he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the tzara'at seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field. (Vayikra 14:2-7)

The two live pure birds, the life and ritual purity of which the Torah finds fit to emphasize, come to purify the metzora. The slaughter of one of the birds is also performed in an earthen vessel in which there is "live" (chayyim) water. So too in the continuation of the description of the dipping of the live bird in the blood of the slaughtered bird and its being let loose into an open field, the Torah emphasizes the fact that the bird is alive.[1]

Tzara'at symbolizes death. "Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother's womb" (Bamidbar 12:12), says Aharon about his sister Miryam who was stricken with tzara'at. So too the Sages asserted that a metzora is considered as if he were dead. Thus, the purification of a metzora restores him to life, and the live birds together with the living waters symbolize the profusion of life that once again flows in the veins of the recovered metzora.[2]

Song, asserts R. Nachman, is drawn from the two birds. And the two birds receive their nourishment "from the place that the prophets receive their nourishment."[3] Here R. Nachman lumps together the singer, the chazan, and the prophet,[4] in that they all receive their nourishment from the same place. Common to all three of them, argues R. Nachman, is the use of voice.

We have already dealt with the idea of speech in R. Nachman's thought, though it must be emphasized that a voice is different than speech, in that it is the blood that flows in the veins of speech and grants it vitality. The voice is not the definitions or the framework, but rather the breath that blows from inside a person and plucks on the vocal cords, where it is transformed into speech and words. That breath, asserts R. Nachman - which constitutes the song of the singer, the chazan, and the prophet, the inspiration that is the living spirit of the world, drawing from those two live birds - is rooted in a spiritual source of holiness which is identified by R. Nachman with "the place that the prophets receive their nourishment."

R. Nachman mentions Malkhut. Malkhut, as we have already seen, is the Shekhina that dwells in the world, the spiritual dwelling place that Holy One created for Himself in order to dwell therein, so that He would have an abode in the lower world. This Shekhina reveals its breasts, allowing the vitality of the world to nurse, and every living thing to satisfy itself according to its own measure and level. However, as we often see with R. Nachman, the very source of inspiration that constitutes the life-spirit of every holy matter, is also the root of that existence which on the face of it appears negative in our eyes. Corresponding to the two birds of holiness there are the two birds of the kelipa.

The kelipa, as we have clarified in the past, is rooted in an excess of holiness. Due to the vessels' inability to contain all the holiness, and thus, in the end due to the process of their breaking, holiness also reaches sources that had separated from the universal Divine tendency. These are the kelipot, and this is the Divine light on "the Other Side" that has remained within them and continues to maintain them, as it would seem, as a real entity of existence that is not in holiness – the Other Side, the kelipot, and the like.

We can now say that corresponding to the singer, the chazan, and the prophet, others are found on "the Other Side," who also nurse from the source of "the voice." They too sing, they too serve as chazan, and they too have a vision, though they are turned towards evil, rather than to good. This is the great danger, for we are dealing here with nourishment derived from a source of holiness. It is easy and enticing to be swept away after them.


In teaching no. 3, R. Nachman first relates to the wicked singer and the danger growing out of his song and music.[5] This idea is brought by R. Nachman in two other teachings. Let us examine them first, and then we shall return to the rest of teaching no. 3:

That the wicked often sing songs of lament and depression is due to their being an aspect of the soul of the mixed multitude. The mother of the mixed multitude is LYLyT (Lilit), who meYaLeLeT (whines) constantly. They therefore produce songs of lament.

The reason people are generally drawn to these songs is because their nourishment comes from the aspect of "Leah's eyes were weak" (Bereishit 29:17). This is the aspect of dimmed sight, the aspect of me'orot (luminaries) lacking [a vav]. As it is written: "Let there be me'orot" (Bereishit 1:14) – spelled defectively. This is Lilit (Zohar III, 234a).

In the main, song comes from the aspect of the Tribe of Levi, who were conductors of song. They were descendants of Leah. When Levi was born, it was said: "This time my husband yeLaVe (will become attached) to me. For with the birth of Levi, who is the element of music (Zohar II, 18b), came attraction - that [her husband] would be attached and attracted to her. Therefore, song, which evolves and descends from there – from the aspect of "And Leah's eyes were weak" – has the power to attract, as in, "This time [my husband] will become attached," as explained above.

When people sing the aforementioned songs on Shabbat, they elevate them. For on Shabbat the Or (light) is completed, in the aspect of what our Sages, of blessed memory, said: "Haughty strides remove [one five-hundredth of] the me'OR of his eyes… and it returns with the nighttime kiddush" (Berakhot 43b). Thus it is that the light is perfected on Shabbat, corresponding to, "They walk on {Shabbat] with unpretentious steps" (Shabbat song). They elevate the aforementioned songs, which are nourished from dimmed sight, by means of Shabbat, which is the aspect of the complete rectification of sight, as explained above. (Likutei Moharan Kama 226)

In this teaching R. Nachman describes a certain phenomenon, and attempts to explain it:

The wicked, argues R. Nachman, for the most part sing melodies of lament and sadness, and it is human nature to be drawn to such melodies. R. Nachman explains: The wicked are the soul of the mixed multitude, and the mother who gave birth to this soul is Lilit[6] who constantly whines. This Lilit is the aspect of "Leah's eyes were weak," which is dimmed sight, the aspect of me'orot (luminaries) lacking a vav.

R. Nachman cites the words of the holy Zohar on the word me'orot in the creation story, which is written in a defective manner, that this refers to Lilit. Again, following the same principle that we saw above, there lies here the principle that already at the time of the creation of the world, excesses were created, the light within them being defective, a particle separated from the perfect profusion of Divine light. Indeed, it bestows vitality on the world within which it is held captive, but since it is separate and detached, it cannot bring God's word in a perfect manner and illuminate the world in its light. This is a defective world of "eclipses", of incomplete visions, of partial pictures, and in the words of R. Nachman, of dimmed vision. This, according to R. Nachman, is the aspect of Leah.[7]

This defective world, this aspect of Leah, does not remain alienated and distant. Its relationship with the center of existence, or in the words of R. Nachman, with Yaakov, grows stronger with the birth of children: "And she called his name Reuven; for she said, Surely the Lord has looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me… And she said, Because the Lord has heard that I was hated; He has therefore given me this son also; and she called his name Shimon" (Bereishit 29, 32-33). This process seems to reach its climax with the next son: "This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have born him three sons; therefore was his name called Levi."

Levi, then, symbolizes the possibility of joining the defective world – which comes to expression in the hatred that had existed towards Leahto Yaakov. Levi – R. Nachman offers his own interpretation of the story – is the channel connecting Leah and Yaakov, the defective world and the ability to influence the world. And he accomplishes this, asserts R. Nachman, through his singing.[8]

Singing, then, is an instrument in the hands of the wicked to establish a connection, and thus, to influence the world. Standing on their own, without this aspect, they are like the hated Leah, who, while indeed attached to the house of Yaakov, is merely an extra appendage. Meaningful attachment and the assumption of a central role in the building of the nation begins with the birth of children and reaches perfection in the aspect of Levi.[9]


We learn why a niggun has so much power from the following words of R. Nachman:

The essence of melody and musical instruments was brought into the world by Levi, as is brought in the Zohar (II, 19a), that the essence of melody is from the side of the Levites. This is what Leah said: "This time my husband YeLaVe (will become attached) to me" (Bereishit 29:34). At that time, LeVY was born; through him the aspect of melody and musical instruments came into the world. Certainly "this time my husband will become attached to me," for the joining of two things is by means of melody and musical instruments. Understand this.

And this is the aspect of the musical instruments that they play at a wedding. (Likutei Moharan Kama 237)

In this teaching, R. Nachman asserts that "the joining of two things is by means of melody and musical instruments." A niggun has the power to join two things. We see with our own eyes the sweeping power of a niggun. Extreme enthusiasm, sometimes reaching the point of mass ecstasy, is rarely found today except at musical performances, in all their varied forms. There is nothing in the world that can compare to the power of music pouring out of giant amplifiers, sweeping thousands of people to other places, detaching them entirely from the everyday existence that surrounds them. Neither the word – written or spoken – nor even drama can create such a sweeping and unbreakable connection, in the way that music can.[10]

Because music is able to sweep people off their feet, causing them to abandon their critical powers and lose control, the song of the wicked is far more dangerous than any article, lecture, or book to which a God-fearing person is likely to be exposed.

There is a well-known Chassidic saying that "a song does not contract ritual impurity." This maxim is invoked to legitimize all melodies, provided that they become connected to a source of holiness. Indeed, we find Chassidic tunes rooted in the tunes of the wicked Cossacks, in Russian military marches, or the like.[11] It seems that at this stage, R. Nachman wishes to add to this assertion, arguing that not only does a song not contract ritual impurity, it can hide such impurity.

Parents often console themselves with the argument: "What is wrong if the boy listens to non-Jewish music? As long as he is learning, and remains observant, everything is in order!" R. Nachman, however, does not content himself with this consolation. He contends that the music that a child hears opens a communication channel to the source from which the melodies issue forth. From that point, his soul is connected to the souls of those who sing or play the melodies, and the influence that they exert automatically follows.


The matter, however, is not absolute, and this too has a solution. Regarding the way to deal with this difficulty, R. Nachman writes in the continuation of teaching no. 3:

The remedy, which makes it possible to listen to the song of any individual [without being harmed] is studying the Oral Law at night. This refers to the Talmud, which is an aspect of night. As is brought in the Midrash (Shochar Tov 19): "When Moshe was on Mount [Sinai] for forty days and forty nights, he had no way of knowing whether it was day or night. Except, that when he was taught the Written Torah, he knew it was day, and when he was taught the Oral Torah, he knew it was night."

We see, then, that the Oral Torah is an aspect of night. As our Sages taught: "He seats me in dark places" (Eikha 3:6) – this is the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a). And it is written (Bereishit 1:5), "and the darkness he called night."

By studying the six orders [of the Talmud] a person rectifies the six rings of the windpipe, via which the voice emerges. This is (Eikha 2:19), "Rise, sing out in the night." Song is raised up by means of "the night" – i.e., the six orders of the Talmud.

However, when a person studies not for learning's own sake [but] in order to be called rabbi, [such] study is not all that meritorious. Yet if he studies at night, a thread of lovingkindness is drawn over him [during the day] (Chagiga 12b), and it protects him from being adversely affected by the intention. (Likutei Moharan Kama 3)

Talmud study, argues R. Nachman, allows a person to hear a song from any person, even from the wicked. The Talmud, which is the aspect of night, is what allows a person to hear the song of the wicked, without the concern that R. Nachman had raised earlier. This is explained in the following teaching.

In earlier generations, when people knew their day of death, they would occupy themselves with Torah the entire day and Satan would have no rule over them. Yet, nowadays, we find that people die while in the midst of studying.

Know that if the study is proper, then [Satan] certainly has no power [to harm the person]. However, if the study is improper, particularly the study of Talmud – if the study is improper, then [Satan] receives extra strength from it. This is because TaLMUD has the same numerical value as the letter of her name LYLYT (Lilit). Therefore, the study of Talmud has the potential to either subjugate her or [do] the opposite, God forbid. (Likutei Moharan Kama 214)

The word 'Talmud,' notes R. Nachman, is numerically equivalent to the world 'Lilit.' We already encountered Lilit in this shiur, when we spoke of the song of the wicked. Like singing, then, the Talmud is the root of faith and also the root of heresy. It has the power to subjugate Satan; if, however, the study of Talmud is improper, Satan himself is nourished from it.

It seems to me that we may reach a more profound understanding of this idea by way of the distinction between the psychological and spiritual experience of studying Talmud and the parallel experience of studying Halakha.

The Talmud is a world of "hava aminot" – possible understandings. It is an archive that perpetuates all the opinions that had risen around a particular topic, no difference being made between opinions that have been rejected and those that have been accepted. Moreover, the Talmud consciously blurs its various historic layers. A first generation Amora may be found arguing with an Amora of the fourth generation. Saboraic discussions are brought in a single continuum together with discussions that preceded them by tens or even hundreds of years.

The Talmud, when it sets before us all the opinions – those that have been accepted and those that have not – and all the parties to the debate, early and late, it is asking us to give equal consideration to and logically argue against, every opinion and every idea surrounding a particular law. Stated in modern terms, a Talmud student learns to be tolerant. Alternatively, we may say that he learns to find the Divine truth in every opinion and in every matter, even in those that have not been accepted in practice.

The psychological position associated with the study of Halakha is the exact opposite. Here we are dealing with study "by a process of elimination." Not this, not this, not this, and therefore this, yes! The study of rejected arguments does not bring the student any closer to the Halakha, and sometimes even holds him back and confuses him. The aspiration in the study of Halakha is to arrive at a decisive conclusion, which effectively renders irrelevant anything that was not accepted as law.

When a person is engaged in the pure study of Talmud, he is not interested in the Halakha, but in the various aspects of the law that arise from the diverse opinions.[12] In the study of Halakha, the decisive truth is the final law, whereas in the study of Talmud, the truth is revealed in the various aspects and different sides, and the purpose of study is to uncover the truth in all its diversity, as it is reflected in the discussion of the talmudic passage.

This wondrous aspect of Talmud study, which uncovers the many-sided Divine truth, is liable to turn into a stumbling-block, when a person develops within himself the quality of finding the element of truth in everything. For this quality, just as it can redeem every idea and give it significance, it can also bestow legitimacy upon falsehood and evil.[13]

R. Nachman does not go into detail when he speaks of "improper study," though it would appear that these words refers to study that is not done for the sake of Heaven or out of the fear of Heaven: study that is motivated by the intellectual stimulation and mental challenge, and that does not involve the seeking of God. Such study is liable to serve evil and grant it entry into a person's heart, or perhaps we should say into his brain.[14]

It may be suggested that the boundary between redeeming the spark of truth that is found in evil and accepting evil as it is depends on the manner in which a person studies Talmud and develops for himself the internal quality that seeks the Divine truth that is hidden in our multi-faceted reality. This quality, when acquired through the proper study of Talmud, is also that which allows a person to listen to the singing of the wicked and redeem the Divine truth concealed within it. To repair "the voice of the song" and to find the source of its nourishment. The study of Talmud teaches a person how to study a particular opinion, know that it is not the final law, and recognize that it has been rejected and has no operative significance in our religious world, but nevertheless to contemplate how it embodies a particular aspect of Divine truth. This is what a person must do with the song of the wicked, and Talmud study paves the way for him to successfully stand up to the challenge.


R. Nachman continues teaching no. 3 as follows:

With this, it is possible to reconcile the juxtaposition in the Mishna: "Get yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably" (Avot 1:6).

By listening to song in the manner explained above, he rectifies his aspect of building up Malkhut.

This is "Get yourself a rabbi" – i.e., rectify the aspect of Malkhut. It is explained by "KeNeH (acquire) for yourself a friend." This is by means of the KaNeH (windpipe), via which the voice emerges.

This joins the two cherubs so that they are face to face, "as the embrace of a man and his consort" (I Melakhim 7:36), when the Jewish people perform the will of the Holy One (Bava Batra 99a).

But, then, when a person rectifies his aspect of Malkhut, he is able to rule over whatever he chooses. He can bring death to one person or give life to another. The world would then be ravaged. To this, [the Mishna] says: "And judge everyone favorably." It is necessary to judge each person favorably, for the Holy One has no desire in the world's destruction. "He did not create it a wasteland, but formed it to be inhabited" (Yeshayahu 45:18). (Likutei Moharan Kama 3)

R. Nachman uses the ideas mentioned above to explain the Mishna in Avot. He asserts that there is a causal succession between the three statements in the Mishna in the following order: Acquire for yourself a companion Get yourself a rabbi Judge everyone favorably.

For the acquisition of a companion R. Nachman requires a a niggun. The psychological movement of acquiring a companion resembles the psychological movement singing. It is through the windpipe that the voice issues forth and joins the two cherubs so that they are face to face. The cherubs symbolize the connection between God and Israel. And when Israel performs the will of God, He shines His face upon them. The niggun which "joins two things" creates the connection, as we saw above, between God and His Shekhina. We are dealing with the act of receiving nourishment from an elevated place. When a person sings, he lifts his face outwards in order to receive something - inspiration, apprehension, or merely a pleasant feeling. This lifting of the face is similar to the attempt to acquire a friend, an attempt which also requires the lifting of one's face outwards and the readiness to receive from the other. When man lifts his face to God, God bestows His profusion upon him, and in this way his niggun turns into a channel between him and God.

When this happens, explains R. Nachman, the person merits a "rabbi" – repairing his building of Malkhut. "Acquire for yourself a friend," according to R. Nachman, is a spiritual position and a psychological movement. We are dealing with lifting one's face outwards. "Make yourself a rabbi," according to R. Nachman is the result. When a person turns his face toward God, God becomes his rabbi. He guides him, directs him, elevates him, and resides within him. This is the repair of the aspect of Malkhut in man. Man is no longer detached and separate from God.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, in his book, "The Lonely Man of Faith," describes the loneliness of man, in that his soul is distinct and different from that of the rest of the world. It is impossible, argues R. Soloveitchik from an existential position, for a person to successfully escape his own individual experience of existence and break into that of his alien surroundings. A person will never really be able to share his experiences, his feelings, and even his cognitions with those around him, for I am I and you are you, and there is no true bridge between the "I" and the "thou."

This barrier of the "lonely man of faith" is nevertheless breached, according to R. Soloveitchik, and in his words, with the help of "Him." God serves as the bridge between the "I" and the "thou." Standing before God requires man to go out of himself and recognize the existence of an objective existence that is outside his cognition and feeling. Kant's teachings shatter before the presence of God, and when there is a "He," then also the "I" can meet the "thou."

It seems to me that R. Nachman, in his last words, tries to construct the I-thou-He triangle in a manner that is different from that of R. Soloveitchik.

According to R. Nachman, it is difficult for a person to get a rabbi for himself and to recognize the existence of an objective external entity that obligates him and even dwells within him and leads him. Turning to God is exceedingly difficult, sometimes a person is asked to acquire for himself the ability to turn to his surroundings, and when he accomplishes that, he can also stand before God. The psychological position of acquiring a friend, of the readiness to go out of oneself and meet the other, is the position that allows a person to turn his face also to God.

New meaning is given to the ethical idea that when the two cherubs face each other, the Shekhina is present in Israel. According to R. Soloveitchik we can say that we are dealing with a symptom. When the Shekhina resides in Israel, the two cherubs also face each other. When the Shekhina bursts out of the silence of objective existence in an existential world, it is then possible to acquire a friend and the two cherubs face each other. According to R. Nachman, we can say that we are dealing here with the source. The cherubs ability to face each other is what allows the Shekhina to dwell among them. When a man and woman face each other and thereby express their readiness to renunciate a small part of themselves, the man (ish [alef, yod, shin]) remains without his yod, and the woman (isha [alef, shin, heh]) without her heh. But this renunciation, this psychological movement of turning from the inside outwards, is what allows God (yod, heh) to dwell among them.

It seems to me that it is possible to understand this distinction between R. Soloveitchik and R. Nachman on the basis of another principle common to the two of them.

R. Soloveitchik often speaks of God's demand of man to sacrifice. Thus he writes:

The religious act is essentially an experience of suffering. When man meets God, God demands self-sacrifice that expresses itself in man's struggle with his primitive passions, in the breaking of his will, in his acceptance of a transcendental burden, in his renunciation of excessive carnal pleasure, in his occasional withdrawal from the sweet and pleasant, in his dedication to the strangely bitter, in his confrontation with the secular regime, and in his yearning for a paradoxical world that is not understood by others. Offer your sacrifice! This is the primary command given to the man of religion, the select of the people; from the very moment that they discovered God, they engaged in an act of constant sacrifice. (Al Ahavat ha-Torah u-Ge'ulat Nefesh ha-Dor, Divrei Hashkafa, p. 255)

Standing before God, according to R. Soloveitchik, is a ceaseless experience of sacrifice. God demands of man that he must serve Him by way of his readiness to sacrifice. Whenever man meets God, God's first address to him is "Offer your sacrifice."

The idea of renunciation and sacrifice is also found in the thought of R. Nachman. He too understands that man's connection with God passes through sacrifice and the readiness to renunciate. R. Nachman, however, focuses on the renunciation that man makes before his meeting with God in order to allow that very meeting.

R. Nachman speaks primarily of a cognitive renunciation, by which man is ready "not to understand," by which man is ready to ease his hold on the reins of control and apprehension, in favor of devotion and abnegation before something greater than he. R. Nachman's sacrifice is identical to the idea of abnegation in Chassidut. Man's encounter with God is only possible when man is ready to renunciate; only then does the "owner of the castle" appear.

The difference, then, between R. Soloveitchik's renunciation and that of R. Nachman is in the timing. According to R. Soloveitchik, the renunciation is a result of man's encounter with God, whereas according to R. Nachman, it is the means that allows that encounter.

It seems to me that now we can also understand the order of "acquiring a friend" and "getting a rabbi."

According to R. Soloveitchik, it is man's standing before God that creates for him the experience of sacrifice. When, as a result of the demanding relationship between man and God, a person adopts this psychological attitude, he can also use this attitude of renunciation in order to break out of his existential bubble towards the other. From this perspective, man's encounter with God serves as a preparation and training for his encounter with his fellow man.

According to R. Nachman, the experience of sacrifice is the means without which one will never reach God. From this perspective, standing before one's fellow man and the readiness to meet him through renunciation, is what allows man to stand before God. The acquisition of a friend is the only way to acquire the attribute without which a person will never reach God.

The third link that comes in the wake of acquiring a friend and getting oneself a rabbi is "judging everyone favorably." R. Nachman gives expression here to his concern that it is precisely the acquisition of this attribute that is liable to bring grave judgment that will lead to destruction into the world.

God's harsh and famous words to Moshe in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf may help us understand the matter:

And the Lord said to Moshe, Depart, and go up from here, you and the people who you have brought out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, saying, To your seed will I give it. And I will send an angel before you; and I will drive out the Caanani, the Emori, and the Chitti, and the Perizi, the Chivvi, and the Yevusi. Into a land flowing with milk and honey. For I will not go up in the midst of you; for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you on the way. (Shemot 33:1-3)

It seems to me that R. Nachman is not concerned about the exaggerated use of power that the singer has acquired for himself. We are not dealing here with drunkenness of power, but rather with the pursuit of justice and judgment. When the Shekhina is close and dwells among the people, the demand to walk in the way of God is far greater, to the point that God proposes to Moshe that He will distance himself from Israel and replace the Shekhina with an angel, lest He consume them on the way.

Moshe's response is also the response of R. Nachman: "Judge everyone favorably." Moshe asks God to walk among them: "If Your presence go not with me, carry us not up from here" (Shemot 33:13). Moshe asks God to lead Israel and dwell among them, but he asks that the attribute of mercy should always overcome the attribute of judgment. These are the thirteen attributes of mercy. On the one hand, "And the Lord passed by before him" (Shemot 34:6) – this being the Shekhina that dwells among Israel. On the other hand, "The Lord, the Lord, mighty, merciful and gracious" (ibid.) – this is "judge everyone favorably."

A person who merits repairing the building of his Malkhut by way of his niggun, who merits inspiration, must not develop on account of that inspiration an attitude of alienation and lack of understanding towards the world that remains below. Song elevates and leads to communion with God, but returning to the world of lovingkindness is essential for the existence and building of the world – "the world is built by lovingkindness" (Tehillim 89:3).

It seems to me that while the matter is not stated explicitly, we cannot overlook the practical guidance implicit in the words of R. Nachman. R. Nachman is aware of the power of niggun and of its ability to elevate man to levels and experiences that he never dreamt about – levels that in a single moment turn the entire world into something petty and void of meaning. This is a position of power and strength.

A group of yeshiva students celebrating at a wedding can engage in ecstatic and spiritually-uplifting dancing and leave the rest of the dancers on the outside. Whether this results from aggressive communion that does not allow a person to see what he is trampling upon, or it results from a feeling of superiority that not every person is worthy of joining this spiritual strength – the message is "judge everyone favorably."


[1] In the Torah, however, there is already a reason to mention the fact that the bird is alive, in order to distinguish it from the bird that had been slaughtered. However, the consistent repetition throughout the passage of the root "chaya" (live) invites explanation.

[2] So too, every morning anew, nature's reawakening is announced by the chirping of the birds. As the poet has said: "If the birds are not singing, death is king."

[3] It may be added, for those with some understanding of kabbalistic ideas, that in the continuation of this teaching, R. Nachman clarifies that this "place" is the spheres of Netzach and Hod, which are combined in the sphere of Yesod, the sphere that builds up the sphere of Malkhut: "Now, it is brought in the writings of the Ari, of blessed memory, that the birds of the kelipa are the intellect of Malkhut de-Kelipa (Kingdom of the Other Side), whereas these two live pure birds are the concept of building up Malkhut de-Kedusha (Kingdom of Holiness). David was therefore lauded before Shaul as one 'who is skilled at playing music' (I Shemuel 16:18). This is because song is the concept of building up Malkhut, which is why [David] was deserving of malkhut (kingship). Thus, of [David] it is written: 'From behind the nursing ewes he brought him [to tend His people Yaakov]' (Tehillim 78:71). That is, from behind those that suckle. This refers to Netzach and Hod, for they nourish the prophets and are the concept of building up Malkhut." (Likutei Moharan Kama 3)

[4] R. Nachman sees song and chazanut as a form of prophecy – the word chazan stemming from the word chazon ("vision"). We shall further examine the connection between the three below.

[5] At the end of teaching no. 3, R. Nachman relates also to unfit chazanim. We shall relate to this in the coming shiurim.

[6] We shall not go into the significance of Lilit in kabbalistic terminology, but we shall merely note that we are dealing with a negative-spiritual entity that acts upon the real world.

[7] Beyond the esoteric aspect of the matter, it seems to me that the plain sense of Scripture clothes this esoteric aspect in an understandable and logical garment. Yaakov's marriages to the daughters of Lavan which constitute the foundation of the building of the Jewish people and the story of the Shekhina built by it in the world, were not performed easily or with perfection. His marriage to Leah, as presented by Scripture, was not lekhatchila; it was the result of a certain mishap, one may even say deception. When Yaakov saw Rachel, he became totally filled with the desire to marry her and establish the house of Israel with her. But the meeting of this objective with material reality, with the "Lavan" in it, brought about a change in the "original plan." The primary defect in the Yaakov's marriage to Leah was the absence of love towards her, as the Torah testifies: "And God saw that Leah was hated" (Bereishit 29:31).

[8] The connection that R. Nachman makes here between voice and sight is very interesting. R. Nachman contends that the voice (niggun) has the capacity to effect a certain repair of defective sight. Another place where the two senses are connected is at Mount Sinai when the people of Israel merit "to see the voices." At Mount Sinai, however, sight serves as a bridge to hearing, the exact opposite of what is stated here.

[9] While it is true that another child was born to Leah after Levi, i.e., Yehuda, from her words after her first three children, "this time," "because I have born him three sons," and from the absence of any mention of the relationship between Leah and Yaakov in the interpretation of Yehuda's name, "Now I will praise the Lord," it would appear that after the birth of Levi, the relationship between Yaakov and Leah was repaired in a perfect manner.

[10] We shall try to explain in the next shiur why a niggun is so powerful. Here we shall suffice with the simple assertion of the power of niggun in order to understand the danger that is inherent in the niggun of the wicked.

[11] A totally opposite idea is found in the book Hanhagot ha-Tzadikim, a book of good conduct by R. Yaakov Koppel Ish Lifshitz. There it is written (par. 5): "One should not teach a non-Jew to read, nor should one sing a pleasant song before him, lest he sing it before his idol, and anything sung before an idol may not be sung before God." After a song is sung before an idol, an element of idolatry adheres to it, and therefore it may not be sung again before God.

[12] One might argue that the Talmud is sometimes studied for the halakhic conclusions that may be drawn from it. This then may be the study that R. Nachman had in mind, in which case the distinction between Talmud study and the study of Halakha is imprecise. R. Nachman himself, however, distinguishes between the study of practical Halakha and the study of Talmud, and so the distinction between the two is valid even according to R. Nachman.

[13] Indeed, we are sometimes witnesses to situations in which Talmud students, who enjoy talmudic analysis and dialectics, develop a belittling attitude toward the real world of action as it develops out of study of Halakha.

[14] In teaching no. 3, R. Nachman introduces an additional element, namely, the absence of the intention of studying Torah for its own sake, "but in order to be called rabbi." He contends that studying at night protects a person from this thought.

(Translated by David Strauss)