Nigunim are mirrors that can reflect, and even reveal, who we are internally, essentially. Sacred melodies have the power to show us the shapes of our souls. The Alter Rebbe’s nigunim in particular know who I am on the deepest level, and they don’t hold back from reflecting and revealing the full picture.
In the morning, before brushing our teeth, getting dressed, or even imagining the contours of the coming day, we express our thanks for the blessing of life by reciting a short but potent prayer: “Modah ani lefanecha (I am grateful before You).” Until adulthood, I did not know that the melody I and many Chabad children grew up using for this morning prayer was one of the most famous tunes composed by the Alter Rebbe, known as “Keyli Ata.”1 What’s more, “Keyli Ata” was one of the few melodies that my father, in the backlit doorway of our crowded bedroom, sang as a lullaby to me and my siblings at the end of the day. This nigun accompanied me from waking to dreaming and back again. My whole life. No wonder it feels like home, and holds space for me through tears and growth, in pain and celebration.
“Keyli Ata” is unusual within the canon of Lubavitch music, which is known for its characteristically complex compositions. The two parts of “Keyli Ata” are defined by slow-and-steady sustained notes, rather than flashy musical ornamentation. And yet, its elegant simplicity reveals a reliable path through infinite expanses.
The Frierdiker Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn), the sixth leader of Chabad, would refer to “Keyli Ata” as “Der Gilui Eliyahu T’nuah,” a musical movement for the revelation of Eliyahu the Prophet. According to tradition, Eliyahu is considered the harbinger of the messianic era, a time when divisions will be healed, and mysteries revealed. Eliyahu’s essence thus has the ability to show us our essence. In my understanding, his presence offers a mirror up to the soul, reflecting our deepest, perhaps most hidden self, allowing us to see—to remember—who we really are, beneath and beyond all the layers of physicality and self-consciousness.
At the end of the Passover seder, after saying “next year in Jerusalem,” it is customary in Chabad practice to pour the wine from Eliyahu’s cup back into the wine bottle. Fittingly, the Rebbe would sing “Keyli Ata” while performing this mystical minhag, simultaneously closing the loop of the seder while opening the path to redemption. I remember singing the same nigun with my father following the seder, in the wee hours of the morning, spilling the wine onto the table while trying to funnel it from Eliyahu’s enormous goblet into the narrow bottle of wine. The memory, like the nigun, traces a path I keep trying to follow.
“Keyli Ata” had to be the closing song on Kapelya. There’s simply no better tune for escorting a person into realms of the unknown, or for greeting their return. It is a tender, insistent heartbeat at the end of RAZA’s sometimes wild and ecstatic soundscape explorations. Whether as a lullaby or as a song of rising, “Keyli Ata” gracefully shows us how far we have come, and where we have yet to go.
- Chabad tradition refers to ten nigunim composed by the Alter Rebbe, and discusses their spiritual significance. While there is some disagreement about which nigunim constitute the famous “ten nigunim of the Alter Rebbe,” since more than ten compositions are attributed to him, “Keyli Ata” is undisputedly among them.
Chana Raskin, the founder and main facilitator of RAZA, is an untrained vocalist who grew up entrenched in the world of Chabad Hasidut and its profoundly simple and complex melodies. These nigunim have carried her at every point of her journey through life. In her music and singing circles, as well as in her day-to-day experience, Chana strives to hold a space with others recovering from illness or traumatic injury through the healing powers of quiet, laughter, humming, singing, and movement.
Josh Fleet is communications and operations manager at Hadar’s Rising Song Institute.