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bazakUman is Not Waiting for Me

Rav Amnon Bazak


            Rosh Hashana is drawing close, and the stream of advertisements promoting Rosh Hashana trips to the grave of Rav Nachman of Breslov in Uman is once again on the rise. This phenomenon, which stands out as one of the most striking trends in the religious world in this generation, raises difficult issues in the realm of fundamental religious outlook. It seems, therefore, that this is the appropriate time to discuss some of the more problematic aspects of traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashana.

             First of all, the trip to Uman is part of the broader phenomenon that has been developing in recent years of giving priority to the performance of mystical acts in the belief that they will yield positive effects, over the actual demands that the Torah makes of man. This general trend, which may be designated "the Torah by-pass track," includes, among other things: "Amen meals," drinking spring water near the grave of a particular tzaddik, setting aside challa by forty women, and the like.

             Common to all these behaviors is the attempt to create a new method of impacting upon one's life and actions, in a way that is significantly different from the path familiar to us from Scripture and Rabbinic writings. All year long in general, and in anticipation of the High Holidays in particular, a person is called upon to engage in the commandments between man and God and between man and his fellow, and to dedicate time to Torah study, prayer, and the performance of good deeds. In the framework of the process of repentance which summons him at this time of the year, he is supposed to make even greater efforts and work on mending his ways and correct any wrong that he did over the past year. Without a doubt, these undertakings require great toil and exertion that are not especially popular. Now, instead of scrutinizing his actions, struggling with his passions, and strengthening himself to walk in the proper path, it is certainly much easier to emphasize some external action, such as traveling to Uman. However, the assumption that spending Rosh Hashana in a particular place will provide a person with some spiritual "bonus," does not accord with what is known to us about the Torah's approach regarding such issues. 

            Second, the assumption that there exists a place outside Eretz Israel more fitting for Rosh Hashana than Eretz Israel also stands in contradiction to all of Judaism's way of thinking. Throughout Scripture, Eretz Israel is presented as the place in which the Shekhina rests, and on Rosh Hashana this has special significance, as is stated in the book of Devarim (11:12): "A land which the Lord your God cares for: the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." At the time of the dedication of the Temple in the days of King Shelomo, Shelomo noted the fact that all prayers offered outside Eretz Israel reach God via Eretz Israel: "And they pray to You towards their land, which You did give to their fathers" (I Melakhim 8:48). What is the logic then of distancing oneself from Eretz Israel, the site of the Shekhina, based on the idea that there is a value in spending Rosh Hashana in particular outside Eretz Israel? It seems that even Rav Nachman himself, one of whose most famous sayings was: "Wherever I go, I go to Eretz Israel," could never have imagined that people would leave Eretz Israel in order to be at his grave on Rosh Hashana. 

            Third, this phenomenon places extreme emphasis on a single individual, and this too is a deviation from the path of Judaism across the generations. If a person sees special value in praying near the graves of the righteous (a complicated issue in itself, which we cannot address within this framework), there is no shortage of such graves in Eretz Israel, graves of individuals who by all objective standards are much more important than Rav Nachman. Is Rav Nachman's grave more important than the graves of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs? Is it more important that the graves of Tannaim and Amoraim? The great emphasis upon a single individual – and from a recent generation at that – to which the phenomenon of traveling to Uman gives expression, does not fit in with Jewish tradition across the generations, which never sanctified a single figure as central to Judaism, not even that of Moshe, the site of whose grave was never known to anybody. 

            Fourth, the fact that we are dealing with a trend that developed over the last twenty years, sharpens the disproportion between this phenomenon and the image of Rosh Hashana as it was established over the course of thousands of years. Over the years various traditions have attached themselves to the holiday, but they never changed its very essence, as the trip to Uman has done. Like all trends, this trend will also come to an end, but in the meantime taking part in it constitutes a radical change in the essence of the day as it was traditionally perceived across all the generations. 

And where is the family in this whole story? 

            And finally – to those with families. I know people who regularly travel abroad for work and the like, but nevertheless make tremendous efforts always to be home for Shabbat, alongside their wives and children. Without a doubt, every child knows the enormous difference between Shabbat celebrated with the entire family, and Shabbat without Abba. Abandoning the family for Rosh Hashana directly impacts upon the children's experience of joy on the festival (even if their mother supports her husband's travels) and upon their ability to properly pray in synagogue, and on a more essential level it burns Rosh Hashana in their consciousness as a sad and unpleasant day. We are dealing here with an exceedingly heavy price, and careful consideration must be given as to what exactly justifies it. 

            Those who embark on this journey claim that the trip to Uman is a spiritual experience beyond compare. It must be remembered, however, that spiritual experience is not an absolute value. Without drawing any comparisons, incidents such as the sin of Nadav and Avihu, or even the sin involving the Golden Calf, were undoubtedly spiritual experiences of the highest intensity. When, however, the spiritual experience stands in contradiction to the Torah's outlook, there is room to wonder whether we are dealing with a positive phenomenon, or perhaps the aspiration to enjoy this experience is no different than other universal New Age aspirations that have no connection whatsoever to Torah and mitzvot

            The points raised above, many of which were raised by the greatest halakhic decisors of the last generation, reflect only some of the profound problems that the phenomenon of traveling to Uman raises. To combat this phenomenon, the obligation falls upon rabbis and educators to emphasize a person's duties at this time of the year, the privilege that we have to pray in Eretz Israel, our being part of a millenia-long tradition regarding the celebration of Rosh Hashana, and the great value of spending Rosh Hashana with one's family. 

(Translated by David Strauss. Original hebrew appeared on YNET August 18, 2010)