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Niggun for Broken Hearts

He sat in the women’s gallery of the neighborhood shul from morning to night, writing his chiddushim and dissecting folios, but what really sparked my curiosity was the tune he used to accompany his Torah learning — sometimes it sounded like a ballad of yearning, sometimes like a victory march. Little did I know it was a song that would change my Yom Tov — and my life. A true story.

The following story and its sequel are real live dangers of abusive teachers (or parents). It is a story of souls being repaired. The catalyst of bringing back this off derech youth was through a Rabbi with a guitar , long hair,

It was an exciting time in my life. It was right before Shavuos, and I was about to celebrate my marriage, plus the publication of my first sefer, which I was working on in honor of my upcoming wedding. It was called Megillas Shir, an acronym for my own initials and those of my wife, and copies would be given to the wedding guests as a memento.

I wouldn’t have mentioned the book among the most important events of my life then, except for the fact that it wound up being a catalyst for change in a profound way. And perhaps it will cast the Yom Tov of Shavuos — and maybe even life in general — in a different light for you as well.

Most of my work on the sefer took place in the afternoons in a small shul near my yeshivah, where there was an unspoken secret: A remarkable man named Reb Yisrael spent his days upstairs in that quiet shul, devoting his life to Torah and avodas Hashem. He had a large family, but only returned home for Shabbos. The rest of his week was devoted to his intensive regimen of Torah study.

People would stand in line to receive brachos from Reb Yisrael; others vied for the zechus to give him some financial support, hoping to gain even a tiny share of the merit of his spiritual accomplishments. But Reb Yisrael, with his warm, delicate smile, invariably turned them down. He never prided himself on his accomplishments or considered himself worthy of anyone’s support. His sole partner in life was his wife, a woman as remarkable as Reb Yisrael himself, who dedicated her own life to supporting her saintly husband, as well as being a powerhouse of chesed in her own right.

During that period, there were many times when I found myself alone in the beis medrash. Yet even after the Minchah-Maariv crowd dispersed, the sound from the ezras nashim above my head lingered on. It was the soft, incomparably sweet voice of Reb Yisrael. I soon discovered that the venerated masmid was also blessed with a gifted voice. As darkness descended on the Holy City and silence filled the air in the beis medrash, it was as if the song of the angels themselves were emanating from the women’s gallery upstairs.

In time, I learned how to identify subtle differences in his tone. It was always the same haunting niggun, but with slight variations depending on whether he was trying to resolve a difficult question, or whether he was reviewing a Rashi. Sometime that niggun took on a nuance of intense yearning. And then, when he succeeded in clarifying all of the details of a sugya and all of his questions had been resolved, the entire beis medrash echoed with a song of joy so elevated that it obviously surpassed any other form of human happiness. He sounded as triumphant as a military commander whose battalion had emerged victorious from a seemingly hopeless battle.

I knew about him and I assumed he knew about me, but we never directly communicated with each other — because I never had the courage to climb the stairs to the second floor and interrupt the Torah study that seemed to hold up the world.

Meanwhile, my sefer had taken shape and had already been sent to the printer, when I felt a pang of regret: Why hadn’t I consulted with Reb Yisrael beforehand, perhaps asking him to review the manuscript or at the least, offer some profound insights? I’d been sitting a few feet away from this venerated talmid chacham for weeks — how did I not have the courage to take the opportunity.

With newfound resolve, I decided I couldn’t just let it go. Even if the things I learned from him wouldn’t be included in the sefer, I could still absorb a wealth of Torah knowledge from my fellow occupant of the shul. Even more importantly, I could solicit a blessing in advance of my marriage.

During the week, it was impossible to interrupt him. Part of the reason was technical — the ezras nashim was locked — but even more than that, no one dared disturb this living sefer Torah in the middle of his learning. I decided to wait until Friday night to approach him and introduce myself.

Even then, it wasn’t simple. After davening, I wasn’t the only one waiting to speak to him. Reb Yisrael was engaged in conversations with many other residents of the neighborhood. Some had complex questions about various sugyos in Shas; others wanted to discuss personal issues, and still others were there simply to wish him a good Shabbos and to receive his blessing in return.

Reb Yisrael finally turned to leave, accompanied by his eight sons, along with several people from the neighborhood who lived alone and regularly ate their Shabbos meals at his table. I quickly moved to intercept him. Holding out an uncertain hand, I wished him a good Shabbos.

With a broad, congenial smile, Reb Yisrael returned the handshake and replied, “Good Shabbos and a gut yohr to you.”

Before I could utter another word, he said, “How are you? Perhaps you can do a tremendous favor for me, for which I will owe you a debt of gratitude for the rest of my life?”

I understood that this was the preamble to an invitation to his home, and I quickly explained that I planned to have the seudah in my yeshivah, where my friends were waiting to celebrate our last Shabbos together. I asked if I could save the invitation for a different time, together with my wife.

“I don’t know if the Rav knows me,” I continued. “My name is Shimon Breitkopf. Over the past two months, I’ve been writing a little bit about Megillas Rus, and I wanted to ask the Rav to review what I have written.”

Reb Yisrael nodded approvingly. “Megillas Rus is very important,” he said. “There are few peirushim on it, so you’ve done a good thing. Kol hakavod. I have a few rare seforim on Rus, but I gather it’s too late for that.”

“Yes, it’s already gone to print,” I admitted.

“Don’t worry. Perhaps my seforim will help you for future editions,” he said. “But I’m curious — what was your answer to the basic question of why we read Megillas Rus on Shavuos.”

I shared all of the explanations I could remember. Reb Yisrael made a point of expressing delight over every answer, as if he hadn’t already known all of them. When I was finished, he said, “Listen, Shimon, come to me on Sunday at four o’clock. I want to share another answer with you, one that you didn’t write. It won’t be included in your sefer, but you’re about to begin building your own family, and I think it will be very helpful to you.”

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The ezras nashim was like a closed military zone — I’d never seen a soul venture inside. Yet here I was, invited to join him in his sanctum. It was like a miracle had taken place.

I arrived at the shul and climbed the steps, feeling both eager and nervous. Reb Yisrael escorted me to his table, which was laden with books and handwritten chiddushim, and motioned for me to sit down across from him. There was a stack of seforim right in front of him, but Reb Yisrael looked over them right into my eyes — I felt that his gaze was boring into my very soul. What, exactly did he want from me? For a full two minutes, he gazed at me intently, while his hands moved quickly back and forth behind the pile of books. After those two minutes were up, he produced a large pad of paper, and I was astonished to discover a remarkably accurate sketch of my own face, which he had somehow produced while I sat across from him.

I didn’t get it. Why would the saintly Reb Yisrael use his precious time to draw pictures of other people? As if that weren’t strange enough, he proceeded to ask me, “Nu, Shimon, what do you say about this picture?”

I really didn’t know what to say. “Uh… I don’t exactly know very much about these things, but… it’s very interesting. It’s… very special.” I squirmed awkwardly in my chair, but Reb Yisrael just kept smiling.

“I’ve seen you here over the last few months, and I promised you a peirush on Megillas Rus,” he said, and indicated the picture he had drawn. “This is part of the peirush.”

At that point, all I could think about was how to extricate myself from this bizarre situation. What had happened to the rav whom I had admired so deeply? After a minute of silence, Reb Yisrael began explaining, beginning with a lengthy personal story. It was a shiur that transformed my Shavuos, and my entire life since.

What follows is the story he told, in his own words.


My connection to Megillas Rus began at my birth on Shavuos night. I was named Yisrael — both for Am Yisrael, and for the Baal Shem Tov, who passed away on this holy day. My father, a tremendous and well-known talmid chacham, decided to add Dovid to my name, as a reference to Dovid Hamelech, who was born and passed away on Shavuos. But my family called me “Luli.”

I was my parents’ only son, born after six girls, and as you can imagine, I became their little star. My sisters danced around me all day long and set up a rotation for the privilege of taking care of me. And while the female side of the family did everything to make sure my physical needs were met, my father was focused on my spiritual development. When we began learning Chumash Bereishis in cheder, my father taught me all the midrashim. My father taught me how to learn Gemara at a very young age, and my mother’s greatest joy was when we learned in the house. She would sit in the kitchen and kvell.

From my sisters, who were all much older than me, I learned to draw and play music. My oldest sister was a talented artist, and I’d sit and watch her produce her masterpieces, while my second sister taught me to play guitar.

The discussions about my bar mitzvah began on my 12th birthday. Every meal turned into a planning session and there were many issues to be discussed: Should the bar mitzvah be celebrated on Shavuos itself? Who should be invited, and where should the guests be housed? Ultimately, it was decided that a Yom Tov meal for our close family would be held on Shavuos night, and a larger bar mitzvah reception would be held in a simchah hall after the holiday.

There was one thing that was never a question, though: Obviously, I would lein the entire Torah reading for Shavuos, including Megillas Rus. All of that, however, was merely the prelude to a much more important question: What would be the topic of my bar mitzvah drashah? Different subjects were discussed, and then my mother finally came up with an idea none of us could refuse.

“Do you remember, Meir?” she said to my father. “The night that Luli was born, you went to the yeshivah to learn. I wasn’t due to give birth for another two weeks, and neither of us thought that it would happen on Yom Tov.”

“I remember,” my father confirmed. This was probably the thousandth time he was hearing the story about the unexpected and complicated birth my mother endured alone.

“What were you learning that night?” she asked. “Let Luli speak about that sugya at his bar mitzvah.”

My father stroked his beard. “What was I learning that night? That is an excellent question. It was the summer when we learned Nedarim… On the night of Shavuos, we were learning daf kaf ches, the sugya of Bar Peda.”

“Excellent!” my mother exclaimed. “Let Luli speak about that!”

My father wasn’t as excited by the idea. “It’s a very complicated sugya,” he said. “It isn’t a good topic for a 13-year-old boy, and I doubt the guests will be interested either.”

But my mother was adamant. She had made up her mind, and as far as she was concerned, the subject was closed. “Learn the sugya with Luli until he knows it backward and forward,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll come up with a chiddush to say.”

Truth be told, my father was right, but under his instruction — accompanied by a huge dose of effusive praise — I was able to tackle it. We learned for two hours each day, the entire house taken over by Bar Peda. All of my sisters could recite the distinction between kedushas guf and kedushas damim by heart; my mother would mumble the Ran’s explanation of the sugya in her sleep. During the course of our learning, I wrote down several of the questions and answers that came up over the course of our study — and that’s how I had a beautiful drashah to deliver, just as my mother had wanted.

I’m really just telling you this as an introduction to a custom that began the year of my bar mitzvah and became a Shavuos night ritual. Every year thereafter, my father and I would forgo the beis medrash and instead spend the night learning the sugya of Bar Peda together at home. My mother would stay awake, too, serving us coffee and cake every half hour and beaming with pride. If my father and I hinted that we preferred to learn in an active beis medrash rather than at home, my mother wouldn’t hear of it. “Once a year, I need this,” she would say, and we were happy to fulfill her request.

My path in life seemed to have been defined for me in advance. The nearly three years I’d spent in yeshivah ketanah were a time of extraordinary growth. I learned well, I was scrupulous about observing every halachah, and I was a good friend to my peers and a loving son to my parents. In short, I was every parent’s dream.

During my free time at home and between sedorim, I enjoyed practicing the skills I’d learned from my sisters. At home I’d play my sister’s guitar, and I kept up the drawing, too. I had a secret notebook filled with sketches of people I knew. I kept that notebook hidden, though, because although there was nothing wrong with this little hobby of mine, I didn’t think it was appropriate for a yeshivah bochur to be involved in such things. I was also afraid that if the notebook were discovered, the people I drew might be offended. And so I kept that notebook locked away in my closet in yeshivah, taking it out occasionally late at night in order to relax.

The yeshivah where I learned had an excellent faculty, with one exception. There was one staff member with a very influential position among the bochurim who disliked me from the start. He considered me conceited, and he commented on several occasions that he felt I needed to learn humility.

During my years in that yeshivah, even though I had done nothing wrong, he regularly made a point of picking on me. From time to time he would subject me to withering criticism that pierced my self-esteem, but I just moved on and didn’t put up a fight.

Because I was one of the top students, he couldn’t find too many reasons to criticize me — but if he did, he wouldn’t miss the opportunity. When I davened a long tefillah, he chided me for trying to “make an impression on others at Hashem’s expense.” When I davened normally, he told me I needed to work on my yiras Shamayim.

I heard rumors that he had a son about my age who was no longer Torah-observant, and I told myself that this faculty member was taking out his frustration on me, and I hoped that his painful jabs at me would atone for my sins.

And this is where the real story begins.

It was the night of my 17th birthday, and as was our minhag, I spent Shavuos night together with my father, delving into the sugya of Bar Peda, with my mother hovering in the background.

In the morning, when I arrived at yeshivah, the rebbi who’d declared himself my enemy was waiting for me. “I see that you were not aware that we have a seder on Shavuos night in yeshivah,” he said tartly.

I knew that he was looking for a pretext to needle me. He knew very well that I never missed seder in yeshivah, and he also knew from previous years that I learned with my father at home on Shavuos night. I tried to remind him of that, but his mind was already made up. “Did you ask anyone for permission?” he demanded. “Do you think that there are no rules here? That this place is hefker?”

I’m not naturally impudent, but at that point I felt the harassment had gone too far. “The Rav is right; I have sinned,” I said. “Give me a punishment, and let us be done with this.”

He grew enraged by my chutzpah. Behind my back, he hissed, “You’ll hear from me yet!”

The next morning there was a major commotion in the courtyard. The yeshivah administration had decided to inspect all of the students’ closets and confiscate every questionable or forbidden item. Many of the bochurim were trembling in fear, trying to come up with excuses that would save them from the administration’s wrath.

For my part, I wasn’t concerned. There was no contraband of any sort in my closet. At least, that was what I thought… but then I remembered my notebook with the sketches. Woe to me if anyone found that notebook! I raced to my room, opened my closet, and rummaged through all of my books and papers. Everything was there… except the notebook.

I was suddenly gripped with terror. If the other bochurim found out about that notebook, it would be a disaster. I would be lost.

I began trying to come up with excuses of my own. Perhaps I could say that it belonged to my sister, or to a friend who wasn’t in the yeshivah… I davened Shacharis with extraordinary kavanah, and then I finally began to calm down. After all, I hadn’t done anything wrong. In the worst-case scenario, it would be slightly unpleasant for me that the faculty knew that the top student in the yeshivah had a secret hobby of drawing pictures during his spare time. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it couldn’t be all that horrible.

In my blackest dreams, I co