Ki Lecho (Clei Zemer)

June 10, 2021

{Today, the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, is the fourth yahrtzeit of Rav Meir Zlotowitz, zt’l. To read more about this great man, please see last year’s tribute (6/23/20) and buy the ArtScroll biography that will absolutely change your life.}

Ladies and gentlemen, I had my eyes on this song for a week or two now, and was excited to finally feature it here in honor of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. I wondered how I was going to tie it in to the Parsha or current events (as I try to do), knowing it was likely going to be the only post of a very busy week (BH). But as I read the first page of R’ Elimelech Biderman’s Torah Wellsprings this week, I found the connection I was looking for. Page 1 was enough to teach me that while it’s always the right time to discuss being thankful, the week of Parshas Korach might just be the best week of all.

Now, before we can read about Korach, we must first try to appreciate who he was. Korach carried the Aron in the desert, an honor reserved for only the greatest tzaddikim of our nation. The Arizal teaches us that in the future, Korach will be the kohen gadol! Yes, he made a grave error and was punished severely, but let’s understand that he was an outstanding tzaddik. Therefore, when we study the machlokes that Korach instigated, we must do so without judging him in any way. It is beyond our ability to do so – #AboveOurPaygrade as my Rebbi often says. We seek out the lessons that the Torah wants us to know so we can be b’shalom with our fellow man and overcome the tendency of instigating and perpetuating machlokes.

In discussing the Jewish meaning of gratitude, we must at once understand that gratitude, thankfulness, is a good thing. While this might sound terribly simple to many of you, it is actually very contrary to human nature! I am sure that every one of us, at one time or another, felt resentful when required to feel grateful to some individual. You feel that it binds you in a way, and no person wants to feel bound and obligated. The Jew, however, takes the opposite point of view. To us, giving thanks is in fact profoundly Jewish, thus making gratitude one of the pillars of our very existence!

“Tov lehodos Lashem” says Dovid HaMelech, “It is good to thank Hashem.” “Hodu Lashem ki tov,” “Give thanks to Hashem,” not only because “He is good,” but also because “it is good” for us to give thanks. “Ki lecha tov lehodos,” says the same author, “It is so good to give thanks to You….” Obviously, Dovid had already heard in his age the same cynical rumblings against gratitude that we hear in our own. He therefore gave concrete expression to the Jewish attitude that gratitude is truly a wonderful thing.

When we praise Hashem for everything He does for us, we’re acknowledging that everything is from Him and is in His control – that nothing happens by chance. Korach was among the most respected people in the nation. He was a Levi! He carried the Aron! But he focused on what he didn’t have. If he had recognized Hashem’s kindness and praised Hashem properly, it would’ve been clear to him that everything was from Hashem and he would never have questioned Him or His trusted servant, Moshe Rabbeinu. Instead he focused on what he lacked, and that, R’ Biderman tells us, was the root of his machlokes.

Last week, I spent so much time writing about the beauty of Eretz Yisroel that I had no time to write about the beauty of the music. So this week, let me try to make up for that with another tune by the same composer. Abie Rotenberg, Jewish music’s poet laureate, is a name as iconic as his body of work. A self-made composer, arranger, pianist, and guitarist, Abie’s compositions and contributions to Jewish music have withstood the tests of time and the often-fickle tastes of the “Jewsic” audience. D’veykus, Journeys, The Marvelous Midos Machine, Lev V’Nefesh, and Aish are brands that are synonymous with some of our most beloved songs of all time. Indeed, each memorable melody is a testimony to Abie’s genius and superb talent.

Though the 1973 D’veykus album was Abie’s first solo venture, it wasn’t his debut. That happened a few years earlier thanks to Brooklyn native and former Supreme Court Justice, Judge Noach Dear, a’h. A child soloist on Pirchei Sings, Volume 2, Dear (who himself played the clarinet and saxophone) went on to form a band in high school. In 1969, it was his Clei Zimrah Orchestra that introduced the world to Big Gedaliah Goomber (remember?). Noach then modified the band name to Clei Zemer and started working on producing an album of his own.

He turned to a young Abie Rotenberg, who would regularly sing with the band, to contribute some songs to the upcoming record. Ki Lecho, one of Abie’s first compositions – the one that he says gave him the confidence to continue composing – ended up being the title track of this 1971 release and became an instant hit. The tune made its rounds, and in 1975 would appear on Dov Frimer’s Shivat Tzion album as well as on JEP’s Vol. 2 to the words of “Times of Joy – Vayanu.”

Let me end with some trivia: Do you recognize the voice singing along with Abie? Did the two of them collaborate on any other music projects? Let me know what you think!

Wishing you all a delightful Rosh Chodesh and a praiseworthy Shabbos!

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