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A Song Is All We Need

The High Holidays begin in one month. During the preceding Hebrew month of Elul which starts this weekend, we focus on the task of repentance. We seek to better our lives. We turn inward. We make promises about our Jewish commitments.

A Hasidic story.

A student came to see the Karliner Rebbe because he was depressed. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m not a good Jew. I don’t study enough, I don’t know enough; all I do is work, work, work. But I want to study more. Rabbi, I have a question. What do our great and holy rabbis study on Friday night?”

“Well,” said the Karliner, “some study Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.”

“Oh,” said the student, “that is not for me.”

“No,” said the Karliner, “that is not for everybody. But I am sure you study Talmud regularly. How is that going?”

“Rebbe, I am ashamed to admit it, but I do not study Talmud regularly. You see, I grew up poor. I had to work from an early age to help my family out. I did not get much of an education. I find the Talmud very difficult.”

“Perhaps you study something with a friend?” asked the Karliner.

“My friends also work very hard; they don’t know much about Jewish tradition. Besides, I have no time to sit in the study hall for hours. What else can I do?”

“Working hard for your family is a mitzvah and an important Jewish obligation,” said the Karliner. “You can study the weekly Torah reading for one hour a week.”

“Oh no,” said the man. “I always found doing that too difficult. As I told you, I hardly got a Jewish education. I struggle through the portion each week. If I am really being honest, the Torah portion does not uplift me. I am a failure. I am really not a scholar. I prefer to work with my hands. All I know how to do is work long hours.”

“No Jew is a failure!” said the Karliner sternly. “Every Jew can learn. And every Jew should learn. I know there is something for you. You certainly will enjoy telling beautiful stories about our Jewish heroes to your friends and family!”

“I am bad at telling stories,” objected the student. “I always forget the important points, I mix them up, and I am not a good talker either. Please, I can’t do that too...”

The Karliner leaned back in his chair. He closed his eyes, and then he began to hum. He hummed and he swayed back and forth, and the student listened in amazement to this wordless melody. This was beautiful. What a niggun! And he began to sing along. He never had felt so wonderful before. He had never felt so close to God.

After a long time, the singing stopped. The Karliner opened his eyes and looked at the student intently.

“Rebbe,” the student exclaimed, “I understand. I don’t feel depressed anymore. Thank you, thank you!”

And he went home, and every Shabbat and holiday and nearly every day, he sang the most beautiful melody. He did not know the words. He did not study any of the books the rabbi asked him about. He just sang the tune. He loved the niggun of the Karliner Rebbe. And he did not feel depressed anymore.

Sometimes the melody is all we need to better our lives. Sometimes a song is all we need to uplift our spirits.