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“Whoever comes to my gravesite [in Uman, Ukraine], recites the Ten Psalms,* and gives even as little as a penny to charity in my name, then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do everything in my power— spanning the length and breadth of creation—to save and repair him. By his very payos [sidelocks]I will pull him out of the lowest pit of hell! Only now, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolishness.”  ~ Rebbe Nachman of Breslev

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev made this declaration before his passing in 1810. This promise has since echoed throughout the generations, compelling tens of thousands of Jewish men from every continent except Antarctica to leave their wives and children and undertake a costly, difficult pilgrimage to Uman, a small town in Ukraine, to celebrate the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah.**

To understand why this happens, one needs first to understand Uman’s history and the biography of the unique individual who made this promise.

In the mid-18th century, Uman was a walled city languishing under Polish rule, and host to a sizable Jewish population. In 1768, with an army of anti-Semitic Haidemack pogromists advancing toward Uman, thousands of additional Jews from the surrounding countryside fled to the seeming safety that Uman’s walls provided. The Haidemaks laid siege to the town and demanded that all the Jews be turned over, or else they would massacre the town’s entire population. Uman’s governor refused to turn in the Jews.

When the Haidemaks breached the town’s walls, they erected a cross and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity, on pain of death. Rather than give up their faith, every single Jew in the town chose to “sanctify God’s name”. Over a three-day period, the streets of Uman ran red with blood as the Haidemaks massacred over 20,000 Jewish men, women, and children. The victims’ bodies were buried in two mass graves.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev was born in 1772, in the Ukrainian town of Medzeboz. He was the great-grandson of the famed Baal Shem Tov—the spiritual giant who founded Chassidism—a Jewish movement that focuses on connecting with God through focused prayer, and an elevation of the spirit.

Difficult and yet also aloof as a child, Rebbe Nachman developed into a profound Kabbalist and Chassidic leader, who communicated complex concepts cloaked in unaffected yet inventive stories. Through parables, song, and homiletics, he taught his disciples to live with simplicity and joy, and encouraged them to develop a strong personal relationship with God through conversation and meditation.

Following stints in northern Israel (then Palestine) and various towns throughout the Ukraine, Rebbe Nachman moved to Uman only six months before his death from tuberculosis at the tender age of 38. He viewed the victims of the Haidimak massacre as the most righteous of Jews, and so his disciples honored his wish to be buried in the same cemetery as Uman’s 20,000 victims.

Unlike other Chassidic movements that operate on a dynastic principle, with a son or lead disciple assuming the mantle of leadership upon the passing of the founding Rebbe, Breslev has only ever had one leader—Rebbe Nachman. Before his passing, he told his followers, “My light will burn until the coming of the Messiah.” This was interpreted to mean that they should continue following his teachings and not appoint a new leader. This distinction earned Breslev adherents the derisive nickname, “The Dead Chassidim,” and Breslev followers were much maligned by other Chassidic sects throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Devout Breslevers started visiting Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman’s grave in 1811, the year after his death. While they came at different times of the year, Rosh Hashanah, in the early fall, soon became a focal point for the pilgrimage.

To be close to their Rebbe, a group of Breslevers established a community in Uman, amid a much larger gentile population. Years passed, and control of the region shifted from Poland, to an independent Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, they massacred 17,000 local Jews, throwing many of them into a nearby pond. Following the Holocaust, a small group of Breslev Jews returned to Uman to live there under Soviet rule. Since the open practice of religion was forbidden during Communism, they practiced in secret, inviting fellow Soviet Breslevers to come pray for Rosh Hashanah using coded letters and word of mouth.

Under Soviet rule, Uman was not a town where tourists were allowed to travel on account of a nearby military airport. This fact did not deter Breslev Chassidim from Israel and the United States from visiting Rebbe Nachman’s grave. They bribed officials, they made deals, they snuck across borders and risked their lives, all to present themselves at the grave of their leader.

Perestroika resulted in a loosening of travel restrictions and an increase in the number of pilgrims. In 1988, 250 people made the pilgrimage. The following year, over 1,000 people participated. In 1991, a group of Breslevers started to work with the Ukrainian government to build a local infrastructure in Uman that would support the increasing number of pilgrims. This proved to be a prescient move, as the ranks of pilgrims swelled with each passing year, from the initial group of 250 to over 25,000 by the year 2009. As the pilgrimage grew, there was a tremendous resurgence of interest in Breslev Chassidut. Currently, it appears to be the single fastest growing group of Chassidic Jews in the world. Uman’s annual rite has grown to the single largest Jewish pilgrimage made outside of the Land of Israel.

This massive pilgrimage supports the local economy, with Ukrainians renting out their homes, making enough money to carry them through the year. This economic boom has resulted in nicer cars, better clothing, and a higher standard of living for Uman locals.

I first heard about Uman from my father, who had a connection to the Breslev movement through friends, and had traveled there twice in the early post-communist years. He returned, regaling me with stories about taking ritual baths in freezing ponds, sleeping and praying in an unfinished warehouse, and fascinating encounters with Jews from all over the world, as well as with Ukrainian locals.

YEARS PASSED, and I was fortunate enough to move to Prague with my wife and sons from 2001 – 2004 (where I worked in the advertising industry). I returned to America, and found myself so “homesick” for Eastern Europe that when my father invited me to join him in Uman in 2004, I jumped at the chance. I found it far less rustic, and far more moving, than I had expected. With dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and the spirit of communal prayer, the festival-like atmosphere seemed equal parts Woodstock and Mount Sinai. Of course, I felt an eerie dissonance traveling to pray in the Ukraine sixty-five years after the devastation of the Holocaust, but this only intensified my spiritual and artistic commitment to the experience. As a photographer, I brought a camera along to capture what I saw, with no particular goal in mind. When I returned to the United States and developed over twenty rolls of film, I was gratified to find that my images hearkened back to the lost era of the shtetl, and echoed the famous images captured by Roman Vishniak in his journeys across pre-war Poland—but updated, given a 21st century post-Soviet flair. I returned each year, and continued to document this uniquely moving and increasingly spectacular event. I’ve traveled the world, but Uman has been the only place where I’ve ever seen Jews of every stripe: sefardim, ashkenazim, religious, non-religious, and different sects of chassidim gathered in peace, harmony, and singularity of purpose. I forged new friendships. I gained a newfound respect for the religious experience. I experienced an unprecedented awakening of my artistic spirit.

As a devoted husband and father, it is difficult to leave my wife and sons for the Jewish New Year. Fortunately, they have been incredibly supportive of my trips, for which they have my deep and eternal gratitude.As a religious Jew who is also an artist, Uman presents formidable personal challenges. While it is an incredible opportunity for me to exercise my spirituality and art, it is restrictive in the sense that I can only shoot on certain days. My faith dictates that I cannot take photos on a holiday or on the Sabbath. I cannot be a part of a spiritual community and also break its laws. Because I cannot shoot on certain days, I feel that I am constantly shunted between these two identities: me, the Artist, and me, the Jew.

While I felt for a while that these were opposing identities, I came to feel they are actually quite complimentary. During the time I was shooting, I could see myself, the communities I grew up in, and the rituals I was raised with, from the outside. I saw how these things might look to an outsider, who wouldn’t have the background to comprehend why some 25,000 Jews would undertake an annual trip to this forlorn Ukrainian outpost. This provided me with a distance that allowed me to see the event “from above” as it were, to capture its universally emotional moments, and relate this story to the broadest possible audience.

On the holiday though, when I had to put my cameras down, I was able to experience the event from the inside. This experience gave me the intimacy I needed to live in myself, to experience a more self-reflective emotion, and to make a genuine connection with my faith. As a result of my trips to Uman, I have become a deeper person, a better husband and father, and ultimately, a better artist.

*The ten chapters from the book of Psalms that comprise the Tikkun HaKlali are: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150.
**Rebbe Nachman’s promise is effective not only during Rosh HaShanah, but any time during the year, whenever someone comes to his gravesite and fulfills these conditions.
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THE FIRE OF REBBE NACHMAN : R. Elazar Mordechai Kenig

A conversation with HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, shlita, on the Breslev phenomenon today.

Q. Generations have come and gone in the two hundred years since the passing of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. After all this time, and perhaps contrary to logic, Chassidut Breslev and the teachings of Rebbe Nachman have garnered tremendous interest, touching the lives of thousands upon thousands of Jews. How is it possible to explain this phenomenon?

Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig: Within the last two hundred years, we have seen something remarkable about the influence of Rebbe Nachman. He had not yet reached the age of forty years old when he passed away in 1810. Toward the end of his life, he said in Yiddish, Mein firerl vet shoin talyuen biz mashiach vet commen. “My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach.”My father and teacher (Reb Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, zt”l) would always say in the name of his teacher, Rav Avraham Sternhartz, zt”l, that the Yiddish word talyuen (burning) connotes a certain type of fire, that, for example, catches onto a piece of wool clothing. In the beginning, it burns strongly in one place, and then goes out; it then unexpectedly breaks out in another place. Thus, when Rebbe Nachman said, “My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach,” he meant to say that suddenly there will be an awakening in one place, and then just as suddenly, the same fire will be ignited in a different place.

When we look back over the last two hundred years, we see this quite clearly. During his lifetime, Rebbe Nachman lived in the Ukraine, in the vicinity of the town, Breslev. This was where the fire started. When the communists came and took over Russia [during the First World War] it looked as though his fire was extinguished. But all of a sudden it broke out elsewhere in Poland. This same phenomenon occurred after the Holocaust. It appeared as if the fire expired, perishing along with everything else. Again, it was precisely at that point that his fire reignited elsewhere, this time in Israel.

Today, two centuries later, the fire is no longer in the category of talyuen, where it intermittently breaks out here and there. It is ablaze nonstop at full force. [Two millennia ago] the new moon was announced each month from Eretz Yisrael through signal fires lit from mountaintops. In describing this process our sages state, “In the beginning, they would lift up beacons of light from mountain to mountain, until at the end, they would see the entire golah, the lands outside of Eretz Yisrael, lit up as one bonfire.” Likewise today, we see that there is no place in the world not influenced in some way by Breslev Chassidut. Tens of thousands, and in certain cases millions, of Rebbe Nachman’s books are printed in every language, reaching every corner of the globe. Jewish communities around the world have heard of Rebbe Nachman, and are familiar with his sayings: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” “It is a great mitzvah to be always happy.” “There is no such thing in the world as despair!”

His teachings have the potential to touch anyone along the Jewish spectrum from those not particularly learned in Judaism, to talmidei chachamim, accomplished Torah scholars, who have also spent years learning Likutey Moharan, Rebbe Nachman’s main work. Both these types of people, as well as anyone in between, receive wondrous uplift in their lives from learning the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. Thus, Rebbe Nachman’s “fire” possesses an impact that is all-inclusive, and is an inheritance that belongs to the entire Jewish people.

We witness his encompassing reach in Uman on Rosh HaShanah, where both Breslevers as well as those from every conceivable community or background come to Rebbe Nachman’s grave. A Chabad chassid recently told me that in the Chabad minyan in Uman, there were 220 people last year on Rosh HaShanah. This was true with the other minyanim as well. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people from all religious backgrounds, each group praying in their own style and tradition.

Q. What is the explanation for this incredible phenomenon?

The explanation is simple. We see now, in a revealed fashion, what Rebbe Nachman saw with his ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration, two hundred years ago, regarding the current situation of the Jewish people. Our generation is called the generation of ikva d’meshicha, the “heels of the Messiah”. One needs to understand that two hundred years ago, the situation of the Jewish people was quite different. Unlike today, there were not many Jews who were far from Judaism. Nonetheless, Rebbe Nachman’s entire message is essentially directed toward the fallen souls of our generation, to encourage and uplift them. The task of the tzaddikim is always to strengthen fallen souls, and this is exactly what Rebbe Nachman is doing at the highest levels.

It is important to point out that “fallen souls” can also refer to those who grew up in a Torah-observant home. Anyone can encounter circumstances that weaken the soul and cause unhappiness. Rebbe Nachman strengthens these souls, as well as those who are completely distant and almost completely lost. It is as if he says to them, “You went too far? There is still hope.”

Q. Is there a special importance connected with Jews, who are so distant from Judaism, coming to Uman?

They have a spiritual situation we cannot judge. Despite their distance from Judaism, these are nonetheless Jewish souls. It is hard to understand exactly who or what is attracting them, but they make the journey because they feel a desire to come. Indeed, it is impossible to see the spiritual dynamics involved, but something is pulling them there. Anyone who arrives in Uman receives [a spiritual gift] and undergoes transformation. This is not always immediately apparent, but something certainly happens to the soul.

Similarly, we see the same phenomenon on Lag B’Omer at the gravesite of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, buried in Meron in the Upper Galilee of Israel. People who are very far removed from observant Jewish life come to celebrate the day at his resting place. Afterwards, it appears as if nothing changed in their lives. However, on a spiritual level, it is clear that something affected them.

The entire subject of what exactly goes on with those who are distant is a spiritual matter. The tzaddikim are completely involved in rectifying these souls and we have absolutely no permission to interfere with their work repairing these individuals.

Q. On the face of it, it looks like Breslever Chassidim have it easy. They come to Uman, recite the ten specific chapters of psalms, called the Tikkun HaKlali, atone for their misdeeds, and Rebbe Nachman starts pulling them out of the lowest pit… Is this really the case?

Rebbe Nachman’s [path] certainly provides the tools to strengthen a person, but this doesn’t mean that one has it easy as a Breslever chassid. On the contrary, every chassid knows that Rebbe Nachman demands total investment of one’s strength in prayer. He demands an hour a day of hitbodedut, i.e., speaking to God in your own words, with a spiritual accounting of your deeds and praying for your needs. He also stipulates rising at midnight to say tikkun chatzot, the lament over the destruction of the Temple, and afterwards, many then go out to a field for an hour of hitbodedut. He also requires the learning of Jewish law every day, as well as diligence in Torah study and mitzvot observance. This isn’t easy work. The power of Rebbe Nachman infuses light and vitality into a Jew so he can function as needed, with joy and enthusiasm.

Q. Now that many have drawn close to Breslev, we see there has also been an increase in different types of communities, even within Breslev itself, each with another style. Isn’t Rebbe Nachman’s path singular?

Rebbe Nachman’s way is open to everyone in Klal Yisrael. As with anything in life, there are many gradients in the spectrum of holiness. Wherever in the spectrum a person falls, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings enlighten them in their place and according to their level of knowledge. This being said, it is always possible to make a mistake in one’s spiritual path. Shigiot, mi yavin? (Psalms 19:13) Who can understand mistakes? Everyone must constantly examine themselves to ensure they are not in error. Even for those who learn Torah, it is possible to err in one’s learning. Happy is one who has a good teacher who gives proper instruction as to how to learn, and gives the ability to understand in a straightforward and in-depth manner.

Q. So variation in Breslev is desirable?

My father and teacher (Reb Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, zt”l) used to quote the verse, Ki yasharim darchey HaShem, to make the point that the ways of God are many. Everyone lives their life according to their place and their in-born nature. The holy Zohar comments on the verse, Yisrael asher b’cha etpa’er— Israel in whom I take pride,” saying that within the Jewish people, there are many types of Jews who excel in different ways of learning and service of God. Take, for example, the mitzvah of tzedaka. There is variation even within the mitzvah of tzedaka itself, where there are those who focus on redeeming captives, or those exclusively involved with collecting funds for new brides. God takes pride in the tremendous variation within the Jewish people (see Likutey Moharan 17). The more variation there is, the more everyone is joined together and transformed into a special and unique harmonious entity.

Perhaps the main point in discussing variation among Jews, is not to dismiss or disrespect one’s fellow man. Everyone has their own path in serving God, and it is incumbent upon each of us to value and see the delightful beauty in someone else who serves God in a different way than we do.

Q. In conclusion, two hundred years after Rebbe Nachman’s passing, millions of his books have been printed and distributed, tens of thousands of people are coming close [to Judaism], many of whom fly to Uman for Rosh HaShanah, and the name of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev is famous throughout the world. Where do we go from here?

We aspire to what our sages described regarding the beacons of light that signaled the new month from mountaintop to mountaintop. The light spread out to the entire diaspora in a way that it appeared as one big bonfire. Thank God, we indeed witness how Rebbe Nachman’s message and teachings are publicized throughout the world today. We all await the moment, with God’s help, when “the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of God” [like waters that cover the sea] and “all of your sons are learned in Torah.” We await the time when the entire people will return in teshuva, and we will be worthy of being completely redeemed.

May the entire Jewish people be signed and sealed for a good year, and be blessed with health, livelihood, happiness, and nachat from our children. May we merit educating our children in the way of God, together with the complete redemption, the coming of Mashiach, and the building of the Jewish Temple speedily in our days. Amen.

Excerpted and translated from the original interview in the Hebrew language daily newspaper, HaMevasser. Originally published in Tzaddik Magazine, Rosh HaShanah 2011.

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