Chances are you’ve been to Uman. If not, you certainly know someone who’s traveled to that now-famous Ukrainian town for Rosh HaShanah or another time of the year to pray at Rebbe Nachman’s gravesite. Maybe the prayers were for health, livelihood or children. Maybe they were prayers to find one’s soulmate, or to find oneself. Or maybe they were prayers for the will and the way to come closer to God.
What is it about Uman that attracts thousands upon thousands of people from literally all over the world every year?
The answer perhaps lies in a simple yet often misunderstood concept: the tzaddik. Outside of Chassidic circles, when asked, “What exactly is a tzaddik?” some might answer, “A saintly individual,” or, “A very good person,” or, “Someone very devout.” Yet this still doesn’t explain the force that propels not only lifelong chassidim, but Jews from all backgrounds and walks of life, to a place like Uman, where Rebbe Nachman chose to spend the final six months of his life.
Why a Tzaddik? There is a common misconception that the idea of the tzaddik was introduced by the founders of the Chassidic movement. While certain aspects of the tzaddik’s role had their beginnings with the Baal Shem Tov and his followers, the concept of the extraordinarily righteous individual and his extraordinary greatness has always been a part of Judaism. From Moshe, Yehoshua, and the Judges onward, each generation has had its own tzaddikim—spiritual giants who lead, teach and guide the people in the ways of God. It would take an entire book to list what the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar have to say about the greatness of the tzaddikim (see a small sampling in the accompanying insert). However, just as our understanding of the Torah has diminished in the course of history, so too has our appreciation of the role of the tzaddik—ironically, just when we need him the most.
- Even for the sake of one tzaddik was the world created (Yoma 38b).
- The earth stands on one pillar: the tzaddik (Chagigah 12b).
- God decrees, and gives the tzaddik the power to nullify His decree. The tzaddik decrees, and God fulfills his decree (cf. Moed Katan 16b).
- In the Future, the angels will see the tzaddikim and exclaim, “Kadosh! (Holy!)”—just as they now exclaim before God (Bava Basra 75b).
- If the tzaddikim would so wish, they could create worlds (Sanhedrin 65b).
- Tzaddikim draw down and reveal God’s Divine Presence in the world (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:1).
- All blessings in this world come about in the merit of the tzaddik (Zohar I, 189a).
- Great are the tzaddikim, for even after their passing, their merits last for generation upon generation (Zohar I, 183a).
- Were it not for the prayers of the tzaddikim who have passed on, the world could not survive for even a single moment (Zohar III, 71a).
The tzaddik is one who attains such a level of self-mastery and spirituality that all his thoughts, feelings and actions—his very being—are in total consonance with God’s will. This gives him a uniquely close relationship with God. In essence, what distinguishes the tzaddik from anyone else is that he has an unparalleled mastery of the spiritual, giving him the ability to bridge the physical and spiritual worlds. Yet for all his spirituality, he is—and remains—a human being. This indeed is his strength. He is able to channel Torah spirituality into this world, and guide other human beings in the service of God. In this, the tzaddik is the one who bridges Heaven and earth.
Does this mean that the tzaddik is an intermediary? Yes and no. First of all, God forbid that anyone should think he needs a medium between the Almighty and himself; not from his side, and certainly not from God’s side. Each of us has a direct connection to the One Above. Furthermore, God forbid that anyone should think he needs, or can have, someone else to carry out some form of devotion on his behalf, absolving him of fulfilling his own religious duties. We are all able—indeed, required—to accept responsibility for our own lives and deeds, and to take practical steps to develop our own personal relationship with God.
And so, if the tzaddik is an intermediary, it is only in the functional sense. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, the tzaddik has the task of presenting the case of Klal Yisrael before the Divine Throne—a responsibility that he assumes with the greatest self-sacrifice. The outstanding Breslover sage, Reb Avraham Chazan, likens the tzaddik to a baal tefillah, a prayer leader (see Bi’ur HaLikutim 10:17). In a spiritual sense, he is one with the congregation and the congregation is one with him. Thus, even though we must pray on our own, we need a prayer leader to pray on our behalf. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, the tzaddik also teaches Torah to the people and communicates God’s will. But the rest—“Na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7)—is up to us.
What makes the tzaddik qualified for this role? Because he has succeeded in conquering the physicality of this world, he is able to function as an agent or catalyst for bringing spirituality down into it. Through his efforts and attainments, the tzaddik knows what is necessary for each person to serve God in a true and proper manner. The average individual generally does not have a strong enough grasp of the spiritual to be able to perceive God’s will clearly and know how to serve Him in practice. He must therefore turn to someone on a higher level for guidance (more on this in Part III).
Think about it. Do we always know what to do? Are we always clear about what God wants from us? Can we know on our own what direction to take in avodat Hashem (service of God)? And what happens when we have estranged ourselves from God due to our misdeeds? The Sages tell us that even the Torah, the instrument that conveys God’s infinite wisdom to man, can actually mislead a person who tries to follow it without the benefit of true guidance and leadership! (Yoma 72b). Who can honestly say that he is wise enough to look into the Torah and grasp exactly what is required of him? The Talmud, Midrash and Shulchan Arukh stress the importance of receiving from a teacher so that one’s understanding of Torah will be correct (see Berakhot 47b). This especially applies to the Torah’s teachings on the subtleties of the soul and one’s service of God. The true tzaddik can take the most elevated aspects of Godliness and bring them down to a level at which the simplest person can relate to them. The tzaddik gives direction.
Why Rebbe Nachman? How does Rebbe Nachman fit into all of this? Rebbe Nachman has always been different things to different people. To his followers, the Breslover chassidim, he is simply “the Rebbe,” their prime source of spiritual guidance and healer of their souls. Some know him as a master storyteller; his tales are counted among the great classics of Jewish literature and actually contain the deepest secrets of creation. To countless others, Rebbe Nachman is an outstanding Chassidic master, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. An ever-fresh source of inspiration, his lessons, conversations, parables and epigrams continue to electrify and inspire no less today as when he first taught them. Rebbe Nachman expresses the wisdom of the Torah in a totally original way, opening up entirely new vistas in every area of life. His optimistic message, “Serve God with simplicity and joy,” strikes a deep chord in many who have found themselves on the fringes of the Jewish people, as well as those born and raised in observant homes.
Born in 1772, Rebbe Nachman was only eighteen years old when he first began to attract a following. Many of his chassidim were outstanding scholars and kabbalists in their own right, some far older than he. Even as he undertook the mantle of communal and pastoral leadership, Rebbe Nachman continued to work diligently on his own spiritual growth, grappling with his own spiritual challenges. He sought to blaze a trail through the thick, dark forest that he foresaw the Jewish people would have to pass through before Mashiach’s arrival.
Rebbe Nachman was only thirty-eight years old when he passed away in 1810, but his influence remained potent. His teachings spread by word of mouth and, especially, through the printing of his writings. Today his ideas are studied by Jews and non-Jews, professionals and plain folk, Torah scholars and academicians. His works have been the subject of a growing body of literature, academic and popular, in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Yiddish, and of course, Hebrew.
Why Uman? The name of the Breslover chassidim comes from the town ofBreslov (Ukrainian: Bratzlav), where Rebbe Nachman spent most of the last eight years of his life. That being the case, where does Uman come in? Why did he want to be buried there in particular? Nobody can claim to know exactly what was in Rebbe Nachman’s mind. But if we transport ourselves back 200 years in time and take a look at what Uman stood for then, a coherent picture begins to emerge.
In a certain sense, Uman was a place of opposites. In 1768, forty-two years before Rebbe Nachman took up residence there, Uman was a garrison town under Polish rule. With the advance of an army of rebellious Haidemacks, thousands upon thousands of Jews from all the surrounding areas fled to the town for safety. When the Haidemacks arrived at the gates, the governor agreed to give them access—if they would agree to spare all the gentiles in exchange for the Jews. The Haidemacks entered, set up a cross, and offered the Jews a choice between conversion and death. Without exception the Jews chose death. In the space of three days some 20,000 were slain. Their martyrdom brought about a great sanctification of God’s Name.
Thirty-four years after the Haidemack massacre, Rebbe Nachman passed through Uman. He took special note of its cemetery, praising it in the most glowing terms. “How beautiful it would be to be buried in this cemetery,” he said. By that time, however, Uman had become notorious for a new kind of Jew, one whose outlook was almost diametrically opposed to that of the 20,000 martyrs. Paradoxically, Uman had become one of the first centers of the Haskalah (Enlightenment movement) inRussia.
Although the Haskalah first developed inGermany, it was now spreading eastward to what had been for centuries the bastion of Ashkenazi Jewry:Poland,Ukraine andRussia. This was a time of an unprecedented philosophical explosion in which many of the ideas that had previously defined man’s place in the world were shattered. Human reason waged war with faith. Leading intellectuals questioned the notion that man is subservient to God; they wanted to sever all links with the Divine.
Unlike today, there was no such thing as “Orthodox,” “Conservative” and “Reform”—one was either a Jew or not. Owing to outside hostility, most Jews had little choice but to live in their own closed communities. In the new political climate in Europe, though, equality was now being offered to all, even Jews. For the first time Jews could gain admission to non-Jewish society and culture. But the price was high: the talit, tefilin and tradition had to be discarded at the door.
Faced with this existential threat to Judaism, the religious leaders of the day fought valiantly to innovate ways to preserve Torah observance against the tide of assimilation. For many Jews, however, the promise of full equality proved too enticing, and they pursued it with all their might. During this time Rebbe Nachman made a chilling statement to his followers: “We are now at the end of the Jewish people, their outer limit. This is the point where the boundary of the Jewish people ends…When the Jewish people reach this point, they are very far from God” (Tzaddik #92).
The maskilim in Uman were led by a clique of three men. Rebbe Nachman was the only Chassidic leader who was able to establish a dialogue with these men, and they themselves invited him to move to Uman. For years he turned them down; it was not yet time. But when he finally came to Uman to die, he spent hours with these men, playing chess and talking with them, much to the wonderment of his followers. He would speak with them about every subject under the sun…except Torah. Yet one of these maskilim, Hirsh Ber, said that each conversation with the Rebbe seemed as if he were telling him, “There is a God.” After the Rebbe’s death, Hirsh Ber confided to Reb Noson, “You think you’ve lost the Rebbe? We are the ones who lost the Rebbe! If the Rebbe had lived, we would have repented completely…” (Until the Mashiach, p. 206).