The Modzitzer Rebbe agreed to the amputation of his leg, but with the proviso that no form of anesthesia be used.
(Connection: yahrzeit date)
Rabbi Yisrael Taub was the first Rebbe of the Modzitz dynasty. He suffered from diabetes, and the doctors felt that he should go to Karlsbad for the baths - to help the circulation in his feet. In 1910, while in Karlsbad during the summer, the Rebbe went for a stroll on a hill near a wellspring of water. The Rebbe was amazed at the beauty of the resort, as opposed to Jerusalem that was in ruins. He remembered the stanza from Selichot [the penitential prayers recited in Elul] and Neila [the concluding prayer of the Yom Kippur services] that mentions these two concepts -
Ezkera Elokim v'ehemaya
I remember L-rd and I painfully groan
Birosi kol ir al tila benuya
As I see every city, built to beautiful great heights
V'ir Elokim mushpeles ad Sheol tachtiya
But the city of the L-rd has been lowered to the deepest purgatory
U'bchol zos anu l'Kah v'eineinu l'Kah
But despite it all, we belong to G-d, and our eyes look to Him
-- and he expressed his heartfelt emotions and the stirring of his soul, by composing a moving musical setting for these words. On the way home, he told his entourage that he was not returning empty-handed, and that he had achieved much on his trip. He added that concepts of music and negina that he never had before were revealed to him in Karlsbad. When the Rebbe came home, he told his family that he had brought them a souvenir from Karlsbad - the tune for Ezkera. The Modzitzer chasidim call this melody Ezkera HaKatan - the short Ezkera.
As beautiful as the composition was, the Rebbe felt he had not done the text full justice. In 1911, while in Karlsbad again, the Rebbe said he tried to compose another composition for the text, but did not succeed. In 1912 - again in Karlsbad - many wondrous musical motifs and themes came to the Rebbe. He used them to start a new setting for Ezkera, but he was not able to complete the composition at the time, he felt that there was a Divine decree preventing him from completing it.
The condition of his feet was constantly worsening, to the point that in the fall of 1913 he developed gangrene on one of his feet. The disease spread, and the Rebbe was in almost constant pain. A group of specialists were consulted, who felt that the leg should be amputated.
The Rebbe decided to go to Berlin for medical consultation. A private sleeping car was chartered, in which the Rebbe traveled while lying down, in great pain. As the Rebbe was not able to fall asleep due to the pain, he requested his copy of the primary Kabbalah text, Zohar. He said, "Let the pains at least be yesurim shel ahava - pains given from love (see Brachos 5b) - which are without bitul Torah [a cessation of Torah learning]."
Within two days of his arrival, it was decided that an immediate amputation was necessary. The Rebbe agreed, but on the condition there be no anesthesia! Some say that due to his weak heart it would have been almost impossible to anesthetize him.
Throughout the surgery and recovery, the Rebbe sang many different musical motifs to allay the terrible pain. Whenever the pain was overwhelming and tears came to the Rebbe's eyes, Professor Israels - the surgeon who performed the amputation - heard him say, "Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the World]." Once the Rebbe turned his head and saw a vista of Berlin, and was heard chanting a stanza of the Ezkera.
His son and successor, the Imrei Shaul, relates that throughout the operation, Professor Israels did not hear any moans or groans from the Rebbe, but only heard him humming or singing. On one of the professor's rounds of visits to the Rebbe, he told him, "Rebbe, I just chastised a government minister who is hospitalized here, and is constantly crying out and screaming over his pain. I told him that in another room, there is a Rabbi whose pain exceeds yours, and he is humming and singing."
"I am also crying and screaming," answered the Rebbe, "but in order that these Jewish cries are not in vain, I attach them to a song, to honor the Creator."
At the meal of thanksgiving for his recovery in Warsaw, at the end of the winter of 1914, the Modzitzer told the story and concluded by saying that he felt he had finally composed a melody appropriate to the text. Then, with the help of his sons, he sang the full Ezkera melody. This was the debut of the melody known as Ezkera HaGadol - the long Ezkera, which is comprised of no less than thirty-six sections, each contrasting in nature, and takes nearly half an hour to sing properly.
By now, it should be obvious that this song is a very special one, and cannot be sung under all circumstances. It is sung by Chassidim each year on the Rebbe's yahrzeit, both in Israel and the United States. Usually, one of the senior Chassidim in Modzitz, who has been initiated into learning the nigun fully and correctly, leads it, and the rest of the Chassidim and the Rebbe sing along with him. Attempts by others to perform this song, whether orchestrally or vocally, have all failed miserably.
Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza once said to his Chasidim, "Nobody was aroused by my words of Torah, but from the Modzitzer Rebbe's melodies, everyone's heart was aroused to teshuva [repentance].
[Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the lengthier rendition on heichalhanegina.blogspot.com/2005_12_01_archive.html , where you can also find links to Modzitz tunes, with supplementary material from Modzitz.org]
Rabbi Israel Taub (1849-13 Kislev 1920) was the first Rebbe of the Modzitz dynasty. He is best known for his creative output of more than two hundred melodies, many still sung today by Chasidic groups the world over. His most famous song was composed in 1913, while undergoing surgical amputation of a leg, without anesthesia! He is also the author of a book of Chasidic commentary on the first three books of the Torah, Divrei Yisrael, by which name he is often referred to.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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