Visit to Uman (Image credit: Michael Miller - Own work)
In Europe, during the time when we didn’t merit to have Jewish sovereignty in eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) gave his followers his vow that if “someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity and says these ten Psalms (the Tikkun Haklali), I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom (Hell). It makes no difference what he did until that day, but from that day on, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolish ways.”
It became a custom for Jews to flock to his burial place in Uman, Ukraine, for Rosh Hashana to pray by his graveside asking for teshuva (forgiveness) and the merit to enter ha'olam haba, the World to Come. While he was alive — and even now — this was meaningful to encourage achdut (unity) as opposed to sinat chinam (baseless hatred).
For Rosh Hashana back in 2007 I went with my father for the first time to Uman, the burial site of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Before we got to Kiev, we prayed by the grave of Rebbe Nachman’s great-grandfather, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in Medzhybizh, and those of other great, esteemed rabbis. When we arrived at Uman we went to the mikveh, davened by the Tzion (Rebbe Nachman’s grave), had some tea and cake at his grave site and made our way to the motel where we were staying.
The following day was Rosh Hashana — the Ashkenazim were praying at the shul (synagogue). On the way to the shul, my father and I noticed Ukrainian guards with black batons on various street corners and at the entrance to the shul. They looked at us with a grin; it gave me a cold feeling that I was in a Jewish ghetto in Europe during World War II. It was a long Shacharit (morning service), starting at 6:30 a.m. and finishing at 3:30 p.m. Following the davening, we went to the meal tent for lunch. Just after we had the meat lunch, we were told that the meat we ate was spoiled. A good number of the Jews in Uman ended up getting sick with constant visits to the bathroom. My father had luckily packed pills to relieve and stop stomach pain, but we still felt horribly sick.
I had gotten horrible food poisoning and a stomach virus from the food. Was it perhaps that G-d was trying to tell me something? I got to thinking. We Jews are already in Israel; until now we unfortunately and sadly did not have the ability to come home to Israel. Now we do, and yet we insist on continuing this tradition of traveling to Uman. You would think that after 2,000 years of not having sovereignty in eretz Yisrael — not having the opportunity to return to Zion — Jews would JUMP and LEAP at the opportunity. But alas, the very opposite is true. For 2,000 years, we have dreamed of returning to Israel from the dreadful, dead, corrupted exile. We dreamed of returning to G-d. We prayed three times a day to come home to where we belong. We learn that any Jew “who resides in eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a G-d, and anyone who resides outside of eretz Yisrael is considered as one who does not have a G-d (BT Ket. 110b)." According to the Ramban, a Jew living in the galut (exile) can even be compared to an idol worshiper. The exile is a spiritual graveyard compared to eretz Yisrael, regardless of how many yeshivot, synagogues, study halls and kosher restaurants are in your local neighborhood. The exile was always meant to be a punishment, a temporary dwelling place for the Jews; the Jew will find no rest living as a minority amongst the non-Jews. In the Talmud, we learn that G-d “regrets” having created four things: “And these are they: Exile, Chaldeans, Ishmaelites, and the evil inclination (BT Suk. 52b)."
Why exile? G-d “realized” it had the reverse effect of its intended purpose of causing the Jews to long for the Land; instead the Jews cling so strongly to the exile instead of leaving it.
So now, why are Jews who live in eretz Yisrael going back to the exile looking for spiritual rejuvenation? Why does one feel the need to do so? Are there not enough grave sites of famous rabbis and gedolei hador (giants of their generations) here in Israel?
And what about the cemetery on Mount Herzl? There we find the graves of dead soldiers and tzaddikim (righteous souls) in whose merit we can pray the daily services — shacharit, mincha and maariv — and recite tehillim (psalms) at the resting place of those who sacrificed their very lives in Israel’s wars so that we can live, flourish, and thrive in the Jewish state of Israel.
Instead of escaping Israel to fly to Uman, spend Rosh Hashana with friends, family, and relatives in eretz Yisrael. Not only will you merit better WiFi with G-d, but you’ll be able to fulfill the mitzvah of walking four amot in Israel and be among your own people, a majority in your own land.
There is no mitzvah among the 613 mitzvot to live, or visit, Uman, especially during Rosh Hashana. Galut is galut no matter which way you slice it. There is no Torah source that says you must go to Uman and abandon your families on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. There’s no halachic source for this. If you’re going to Uman from America, spend just a little bit more and come to Israel. Imagine if 40,000-50,000 Jews flew to Israel for Rosh Hashana. Imagine if 40,000-50,000 Jews demanded to pray on Har Habayit (the Temple Mount) for Rosh Hashana? In the Rosh Hashana machzor (prayer book), there are dozens of references to eretz Yisrael and the beit hamikdash (the Temple) that we sadly just pay lip-service to — but there are no references to Uman. Do we honestly really and truly appreciate the gift of eretz Yisrael, especially on the yamim noraim (the High Holidays, the Days of Awe)?
And further, should we give the Rebbe of the “dead Hasidim” spiritual power and pray to him, as opposed to praying to G-d in the merit of the Rebbe? I went to Uman and I openly admit I made a tragic mistake, and sinned. Please, don’t repeat what I did.
Let us spend our money on Jewish life and rebuilding the Jewish future in Israel. Whether you’re going to Uman from Israel or from elsewhere, save that money and give it to tzedakah or chesed organizations that actually need it in Israel - there are many, such as Yad L’Achim, Lehava, and The Temple Institute.
There may be those who look for holiness in Ukraine, but our absence from the Temple Mount in favor of alternative holy places is a disaster for the Jewish people. Our job isn’t to “Make Uman Great Again” — it's to “Make Israel Great Again!” This year, may we merit to see, witness and rebuild the third and final Holy Temple in Jerusalem.