I was hoping for a significant religious encounter in Uman, the central Ukrainian city that on Rosh Hashanah is inundated by thousands of Jewish men who journey to the tziyun hakadosh (holy grave site) of the Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).
I was also interested in the potential social and spiritual benefits of pilgrimage for members of my synagogue, Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom (CBS). Under the leadership of Rabbi Barry Dolinger, they have been pursuing old and new ways to promote meaningful religious and communal spaces.
In the months leading up to my trip, Dolinger began a weekly Shabbat afternoon class at CBS on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings about prayer and meditation, which remain relevant 200 years after his passing. “On a personal level, my practice has become heavily influenced by Rebbe Nachman,” Dolinger explains. “His core teachings focus on the holistic spirituality of the body, emotional states and happiness, the vitality (chiyut) of life and sensing the divine presence in our experiences.”
The emphasis on intentional prayer, conversation with God and spending time in meditation are practices that have proven powerful, empirically, in Dolinger’s life. “These are in line with the shared spiritual experience of so many (including the Hassidim), and are extremely important in our current world, in my opinion,” Dolinger says. “This is intimately connected with our efforts at CBS to make intentional prayer a reality on Shabbat (through our MeSHuGA – Making Shabbat Great Again campaign – and also the start of Thrive (which emphasizes direct spiritual practice).”
On the eve of the last Rosh Hashanah before he passed away, Rebbe Nachman told those assembled with him in Uman, “What can I tell you? There is nothing greater than this – to be with him on Rosh Hashanah.” His leading disciple, Rabbi Nathan (1780-1844), records that he and the other disciples understood this directive to be with their teacher in Uman on Rosh Hashanah as applying even after Rebbe Nachman passed away.
As the flight I took from Munich landed in Kiev, the Hassidic passengers around me burst into applause and Hebrew song: “We are joyous! How fortunate is our lot that we have merited to be close to our rabbi! Uman! Uman! Rosh Hashanah!” I would hear, and sing, these words often over the next week. They formed a sort of unofficial anthem for the pilgrimage.
Rebbe Nachman’s followers’ longing to be near the tziyun hakadosh has not been limited to Rosh Hashanah. Responding to a letter from his son urging him to return home from his travels, Rabbi Nathan explained that he planned to go to Uman and did not know how long he would remain there: “For my entire aim, and all my desire and hope, is only to be by the holy grave site many times. Perhaps I will merit communicating my prayer and pouring out my heart before God, for me and my offspring …” Rosh Hashanah sees the greatest number of pilgrims.
This year Ukrainian media reported that there were at least 30,000 Rosh Hashanah pilgrims to Uman. After reaching the city and wandering about in circles on foot for a while, I located the place where I would be staying. Hebrew letters covered store fronts and the sides of buildings in the vicinity of the tziyun hakadosh. From a photograph, one might not be able to tell that this was Eastern Europe and not Bnei Brak.
I had what could be considered luxury accommodations: a room containing three standard bunk beds, a refrigerator and a sink, with an adjoining bathroom. I shared the room with five other guys. It was not spacious, but aside from sleeping, there was little time to spend in the room.
Throughout the day and night, there were classes in Hebrew, English and Yiddish on topics ranging from meditation to marital harmony. There were also concerts. On Friday afternoon, there was a performance consisting entirely of musical variations on “Lecha Dodi,” the mystical Hebrew poem welcoming the Sabbath Queen.
And there was prayer. A lot of prayer. At all hours, the tziyun hakadosh was filled with people individually or collectively pouring out their hearts before God.
SHAI AFSAI (email@example.com) lives in Providence. Afsai’s full-length article on pilgrimage and prayer in Uman will appear in the upcoming issue of the journal “Parabola.”