The Berditchever Niggun above
There are two kinds of eaters. Those that stop after one serving because they might think it is excessive, greedy, or rude. And those that go for a second helping. That’s me. I go for a second helping. I usually plan for two servings. I love the taste of the different flavors on the plate, the discernment of what smells good, how it feels in the mouth, how I feel nourished, and what I want more of. I anticipate the journey of the return for a second helping. What will I take more of, what will I skip? An eagerness has joined the moment of the return. Experiencing the meal once again, in a new way contains a certain excitement and even depth.
I recently discovered that’s true for my rabbinate, too. Sixteen years ago I was honored to have my parents, brother and sister in law, partner, daughter, and beloved rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Lavey Derby, fly to Colorado in the middle of winter to participate in my ordination. As witnesses, as qvellers, as support, and in Lavey’s case, as part of the ordination (smicha) ritual.
The journey wasn’t easy for them: there was the ear ache, the aging, the beginning stages of my mother’s dementia. There was the cold and the snow. And there was my families’ curiosity. All were proud Jews, but all this religious experience was a bit foreign for them. With each struggle, they all still came. I knew my drash (short sermon) bringing Torah to the difficulties of my sister’s death during my youth, would bring heartache to my family. At the same time, I knew it was the right teaching for the moment, for me, for my community, and ultimately my family. The anticipation was palpable. I felt clammy, nervous, jittery, excited.
Before the powerful ordination ceremony Lavey took me aside privately to share a few words. With words of blessing he passed onto me the spiritual lineage of the chassidic rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, lovingly referred to as the Berditchever. Lavey was his direct descendant. I was honored to receive this extraordinary blessing. I had studied about him in rabbinical school. I knew he lived in the 18th century and was one of the early Chassidic Masters. He was a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch and a friend of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav. I knew he had been run out of several towns by the mitnagdim, those who opposed the movement of the chassidim. When he landed in the town of Berditchev in the Ukraine he was well received and served his people for over 25 years as their rabbi. I knew he did not create a chassidic dynasty, although many of his direct descendants did serve as rabbis. I knew he was thought of as very kind and compassionate, always giving the benefit of the doubt to his fellow Jew. He was the Great Advocate and Defender for the Jewish people before God.
Although I had learned about Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and I had studied his Torah on the parshah (Torah portion) and holy days written in his book Kedushat Levi, I did not connect with his legacy or allow it to influence my life. Receiving his legacy at smicha remained a dormant mystery to me for many years. I did not know how to integrate him into my spiritual life or rabbinate. Yet, the seeds had been planted. I had tasted my first serving of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
In the Fall of 2021, in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic and political turmoil of our country, I found myself spiritually bankrupt. At our second zoom High Holy Days, I couldn’t feel anything. No matter how great the davvenen (prayer) was, the sermons, or the Torah, I felt empty and unmoved. Even when I was leading. (I felt like Diana Morales in the Chorus Line who when asked by her theater teacher, “”Okay, Morales, what did you feel?” She responded, “Nothing, I’m feeling nothing”.)
Through a chance encounter, I heard a colleague share that Reb Zalman, z”l, had asked us all to immerse in one chassidic master as part of our training. I had forgotten that direction and realized I had yet to complete this task. In the midst of my spiritual crisis, I made a decision. I could languish in my spiritual bankruptcy, or I could go back to the Berditchever for a second helping and try to understand his role in my life and my rabbinate.
I went back to the moment when R. Lavey Derby conferred the spiritual lineage of the Berditchever on me. I started asking questions. What did this mean? What is my responsibility now? I was driven to understand why I had received this blessing 16 years ago. To understand the concept of spiritual lineage I made lists of my ancestors, my mentors, my teachers, my spiritual influencers, my family. Through this early part of my immersion with this inquiry, I found some healing and reconnection with parts of my own family. I also started to value, honor, and learn more about the indigenous ancestors of the land we live on. And, the people of Torah felt closer than ever: Miriam, Rachel, Hagar, Devorah, Aharon, Moshe and so many more. My house started to feel crowded with the number of ancestors who influenced my life. I started to feel more alive and less alone. By connecting with so many ancestors, I felt as if I was a Time Traveler and it expanded my life.
I didn’t have any quick answers to my inquiry about the role of the Berditchever in my spiritual life, but I committed to learning his Torah again and keep the inquiry fresh. I studied weekly with a partner (thank you Sue!) everything I could about the Berditchever. His life, his death, the tales/legends about him and of course the Torah he wrote in Kedushat Levi. I was surprised at how much I had learned before, evidenced by the notes in the margins of my books, and the files I found in my computer. Yet, I barely remembered anything from that time.
Once I started this second helping with a new focus, it was his life story that initially impacted me, especially his hardships and resiliency. Because he had been opposed so many times, he had a had a mental breakdown that lasted a year. He also may not have had domestic bliss. The only story I could find about his wife, Perel, was that she sued him for lack of financial support. And yet he recovered and became the Berditchever.
I began to get excited when I learned about his love for Sukkot, our holiday that comes four days after Yom Kippur and lasts a week. Some say Sukkot was the original High Holy Day that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were preparing us for. Rosh Hashanah with announcing it with the Shofar blowing, and Yom Kippur with our rituals of atonement. During Sukkot we are invited to live in fragile huts (called a Sukkah), to invite in our ancestors and friends, and to shake the lulav and etrog. The lulav is a date palm joined by myrtle, willow and an etrog. We shake it to the East, South, West, North, up, down, and then bring the lulav and etrog to the heart.
The Berditchever would always move into the Sukkah as soon as he could and it was said he bought the first most beautiful etrog he could fine. There is even a story that one time when he was run out of town, he left with only his etrog and lulav in hand!
If you look at the famous Yiddish prayer/song he wrote, a dudele, it speaks directly to God who is found everywhere, in every direction. I never heard anything about the song being connected to the lulav and etrog, but given his love of Sukkot, it feels like he wrote this prayer while shaking the lulav and etrog. The prayer mentions finding God in all the directions plus heaven and earth. This connection inspired me to plan to put a photo of him up in my Sukkah next year as one of my ancestors and to learn a dudele in Yiddish. Shaking the lulav and etrog has always felt as an invitation to feel the unification of life all around, and to feel God/Shechinah everywhere we turn. It will now include my connection with Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
A Dudele (written in Yiddish and sung magnificently by many)
Translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi
Master of the Universe,
I’ll sing You
a You song:
You, You, You, You.
Where will I find You?
Where will I not find You?
Where can I find You?
Where can I not find You?
You, You, You, You.
Wherever I go – You!
And wherever I stand – You!
Just You, only You,
Again You, nothing but You!
You, You, You, You.
When something’s good – You.
When God forbid it’s bad – ay, You.
Oy, You, You, You, You,
You, You, You.
East – You.
West – You.
South – You.
North – You.
You, You, You, You.
In heaven – You.
On earth – You.
Above – You.
Below – You.
You, You, You, You.
Where I turn,
Where I go –
I was also deeply impressed with how the Berditchever approached his death and wanted so much to have one more Sukkot before he died. During the end of Yom Kippur, at the time of the Ne’ilah prayers, he saw the Angel of Death standing before him. He was told he was going to die. He was so sad to miss another opportunity to fulfill the mitzvot (sacred obligations) of the Sukkah and the Etrog, so he pleaded for more time. He said his last viddui prayer (either for Yom Kippur or for his end of life, or both) and the Angel of Death disappeared. He realized then that the disappearance of the Angel of Death meant he was granted the extra time he had pleaded for in order to have his last Sukkot. On Simchat Torah, which comes at the end of Sukkot, he danced and sang with abandon, and was called to the Torah as Hatan Torah, the Bridegroom of the Torah. He died the next day. His connection with Sukkot once again touched my heart.
I loved his passion in prayer, and with his very personal relationship with God. Not only was he seen praying from one end of a room to the other with fervor, but he was a man who would freely argue with God! I was slowly opening and connecting to him, but still not connecting with his written Torah. It didn’t seem to match who he was.
I woke up one morning and realized there must be a Berditchever niggun (melody). Many chassidic rebbes had passed down a niggun. I hadn’t heard it in all my years in the Jewish Renewal world, and I hadn’t read about it, but I eventually found it. A sweet and deep melody without words attributed to him. Learning this niggun was the portal I needed in order to open my heart to his Torah.
The Torah we had been studying from Kedushat Levi started to touch me deeply. His teaching on parshat Shemot clinched it. Commenting on the sentence where the Israelites cried out to God for help because of the oppression of the Egyptian taskmasters, (Exodus 3:7-9), the Berditchever teaches that God not only helps us deal with what we are crying out about, but understands that in moments of oppression, we can only cry out for ourselves because of our suffering. Yet, God hears our cries as a cry for more than help from our taskmasters, but also as a yearning/longing to feel close to God. God is the ultimate spiritual director/chaplain/deep listener here, listening for what is the immediate pain we feel, but also for what is underneath our pain. Our longing.
I couldn’t stop singing the niggun and I often cried as I sang it through many times. I knew I was on the right path. Chanting the niggun was an invitation to listen to what gifts were being offered directly from him. When I sang, I would ask him what he was saying to me. I finally made a soul connection with him and his Torah. He was saying many things: “yes, come close”, “from sadness arises joy”, “keep seeking and traveling”, “you are not alone with your grief”.
There had always been niggunim I loved, sang, and had brought me and others to deep places. However, I approached his melody not just as a melody, but as a connection to him. By singing it, I listened to the question, “What gift was he offering?” It also opened a hunger to learn more niggunim from chassidic masters in order to hear their Torah woven within them.
In the process of returning to the Berditchever for a second helping, I found his niggun, a new study partner, and a doorway to once again feel the spiritual life I had that had been buried. I don’t have more words to explain how. I just keep listening as his Torah speaks my name.
Is there something in your life worth returning to or taking a second helping?
I bless you to hear it when it speaks your name.
The Berditicher niggun: