Many theories exist as to why certain tunes or words act as triggers for one’s thoughts. Not being a scientist, I can leave all such speculation to those more astute in such matters; however, I can certainly vouchsafe that such is indeed the case. Let me show you just one example. This kapitel is read, or better yet, sung before bentching every Shabbos and Yom Tov. No matter where you find yourself, come the Shabbos, come this Psalm. Not only is it said every Shabbos, but it is recited at the most relaxed and joyous of times. You have eaten a special meal, perhaps with congenial company or with close family, you are about to thank Hashem for all the warm love He has bestowed upon you, and so, you sing these words. The circumstances are a recipe for happiness, and the words have just the right ingredients.
As a bachur I had the merit of sharing many a Shabbos meal with the Bobover Rebbe, zy”a, and his singing of these passages still reverberates in my heart. It did not matter if there was a huge crowd or only a few, his uplifting passion instilled true joy in us all. The meal was lengthy one, not because the Rav ate a lot, in fact he ate sparingly, but because he was a constant fountain of Torah that would speak of matters that touched the very heavens. After each vort the Rav would sing, and every Shabbos course had its own particular niggun. The hours would slide past without anyone noticing, and we all felt as if we were somewhere far beyond the constraints of this material place we call the earth. After the final few pearls of Torah wisdom, and the last L’Chaim’s, someone would bring in the wine cup for bentching. The Rav would look about, his radiant smile all that more sweet, and then he would look to the heavens and start singing Shir Hamaalos. Those who had the merit to share in a Shabbosdige bentching with the Rav will understand me when I say that he was definably on a much higher plain than any mere witness could attest to. His eyes would be seeking out holy sights, sights seen only by him. He would smile and almost laugh at certain phrases, and his hands would come together in joyous clapping. From the very first time I ever heard him sing this Psalm, until this very day, I still see before me his joyous apparition whenever I come to intone these words.
Shir Hamaalos Beshuv Hashem … “A song of Ascents. When Hashem brings about the return to Zion we will have been like dreamers.”
The Radak explains that this speaks of the final redemption, when the harshness of the exile will seem to the Jews like a terrible dream.
No generation understood nor craved that future time more than the survivors of the Holocaust. The Rav had seen the entirety of what inhumanity could wreak, and his entire existence was focused upon creating a world that would see our total redemption. In today’s society of the here and now, where everything seems to be lived just to consume, it is hard to remember that just an historical moment ago our people had nothing to look forwards to but the chilling likelihood of being murdered. It is wondrous that we have been able to lift our heads once more, and take a positive view of our future. Those survivors taught us never to lose the vision of Hashem’s promise. But more than this, they have left us with an awesome responsibility. We dare not forget the powerful lessons our Rebbes taught us through their ability to create joyousness after they had been made to eat of the ashes of our disasters.
Az Yimalei Sechok Pinu … “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyous song. Then they will say among the nations: Hashem has done great things for them.'”
The Rav would often sing this verse several times. Over and over he would blissfully underline the fact that when we fill our mouths with the joy of Hashem’s love, then the nations will come to accept His Kingship. Only through our perseverance will the light grow in the darkness of this mortal place. His charisma was that of awesome holiness, it was as if a light shone above his every action. To see him sing this one verse was uplifting. It made you want to be close to whatever he showed to be good.
Higdil Hashem Laasos … “Hashem had done great things for us; we will rejoice.”
I was raised amongst Holocaust survivors, and they were Yidden who were giants of faith. They would tell their children of all the miracles they had witnessed in the hell of the camps. Listen to this again; in the hell holes they saw Hashem’s miracles! It is beyond our understanding, beyond the realm of our experience.
Time and again I have heard from sweet Yidden, graduates from that hell, of how glorious Hashem’s chessed is, and how happy they are that their children never had to face what they had to. The Rav showed this at every step. He saw his students as his way of rejoicing in Hashem’s greatness, and we were aware of this as well.
Shuva Hashem … “Hashem! Bring back our exiles like springs in the desert.”
After the war no matter how sparse it may have seemed, our Gedolim knew that from that next generation a wellspring of Torah would be born. The Rav often repeated this as well, and his sparkling eyes would gaze lovingly over the youngsters at the table. Before the war there had been tens of Bobover yeshivos in Poland, afterwards, nothing was left but the willpower of this giant who could sing of flowing Torah in the desert of what was then small barren Brooklyn Streets.
Hazor’im Bedim’ah … “Those who sow in tears will reap with joyous song.” Well this says it all …
Haloch Yeleich Uvacho … “Though he walks along weeping, carrying the bag of seed, he will return with joyous song carrying sheaves.”
No generation walked the path of life with more tears, with more pain, yet, now they reap the harvest of nachas.
This was how the Rav sang Shir Hamaalos, with all the joy that would be tomorrow’s redemption.
We, the next generation, must know what we saw and tell others, so that those past tears will continue to nourish the Yiddishe soul. We can make all those hopes the reality, if we keep our focus on these goals.