By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Despite the economic downturn, I recently made a financial investment that resulted in a fantastic return. It was a CD. No, not a bank certificate. A compact disk. It cost me $15 (including postage and handling) and featured Yiddish niggunim that were sung by the talmidim of the famed Novardhok Yeshiva in pre-war Eastern Europe.Founded at the end of the 19th century in what was then the Russian Empire, Novardhok spawned “s’vivos”, or satellite branches, in many other cities. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the yeshiva relocated to Poland, although not all the talmidim made it; the Soviets shot or captured and exiled many. At the start of World War II, the yeshiva moved to Vilna and other cities in Lithuania. When the Soviets moved into Lithuania, some talmidim fled, others were killed and a small group of them who were Polish nationals – my dear father, shlit”a, among them – were exiled to Siberia.
Some of the niggunim on the disk were familiar to me from a recording my father made for his children years ago. Others I heard for the first time. I was moved by the music and, especially, the lyrics.
Novardhok had a reputation for a pietistic and morose – to some even morbid – philosophy. It is an ungenerous characterization. The yeshiva was a serious place, to be sure, and its students not only studied Gemara but placed rigorous mussar, including self-criticism and personal improvement, prominently on their spiritual agendas. Stories about the lengths to which Novardhok talmidim went to embarrass or discomfort themselves in order to “break the will” and rise above middos like anger, conceit and indulgence are legend – and many are surely exaggerations.
But while few if any Novardhokers may actually have requested a loaf of bread from a hardware merchant or placed raw peas in their shoes, every Novardhoker spent considerable time daily studying mussar texts, critically analyzing his personal behavior before Hashem and man and trying to press his will and actions into line with the highest ideals of the Torah.
Surprisingly, though, what resulted were not broken, depressed, neurotic souls but joyous, determined, soaring ones.
My father, over more than fifty years as a rov of a shul, has had a ready smile and a reservoir of encouraging words for all, and continues in semi-retirement to offer the same to the many who value his friendship and counsel.
And, libodel bein chaim lichaim, I vividly remember Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, the rebbe of the Novardhok Siberian exiles, who in the 1950s and 60s would occasionally visit my parents’ home in Baltimore. Even when I was still too little to know much about the man with the black hat, white beard and peaceful smile who was so eagerly welcomed into our house, I was mesmerized by his aura of simcha.
On one of his visits, bashful child that I was, I ran to the far end of the house and hid under a table. From my safe distance, I studied his bright, cheery countenance. To this day, five decades later, I remember suddenly bounding across the house – only a few yards, but many little-boy steps – and hurling myself onto the visitor’s lap. Everyone was surprised- including me. My feet had received orders directly from my heart. Although Rav Nekritz had been through much in his life that was not pleasant, he radiated joy, and it was a powerful magnet.
Years later, when I learned about Novardhok and its approach to life, I thought it paradoxical that Novardhok self-criticism and relentless contemplation of life and its limited span could coexist with the smiling eyes and joie de vivre of a Rav Nekritz. What I came in time to realize, though, is that it wasn’t a matter of co-existence but of cause and effect.
The niggunim, too, display the apparent paradox. Their lyrics are about things like literal mesiras nefesh on behalf of Torah, the brevity of human existence, the need to seize every day – every moment – we have; yet the melodies as a rule are spirited, lively, filled with trust and hope and joy.
It might be hard to imagine a chorus like “Now [we’re] here; later, there” set to a swing beat. But somehow, strangely, it works.
I think the solution to “How can Novardhok seriousness yield joy?” lies in contemplating a converse-question: How can a society like the one in which we live, with all its opportunities for physical pleasure, avenues for escapism and creature comforts, yield the sullenness and depression that is the hallmark of so much of the contemporary world?
What occurs is that embracing distractions to avoid realities – like the fact that even if we are fortunate to become centenarians, our this-world lives are not forever; that we are here for a purpose, one we ignore at our peril; that we have responsibilities and cannot afford to waste time – yields not happiness but the heavy gloom of meaninglessness.
And, turning back to the Novardhokers, facing the realities of human existence – squarely, head-on, with open eyes – infuses people with joy, born of the immense good fortune of having been charged with a divine mission and granted meaningful lives.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]