Why would anyone brave traveling today with all the terrorists trying to blow up planes and go to of all places, Ukraine? It's in the middle of a war between Russia and Ukrainian rebels. If you happen to be one of New York's Breslov Chasids, you might be going there to make an annual pilgrimage.
Who was Rav Nachman to deserve such respect and daring? His grave is in Uman, Ukraine. He was born on April 4, 1772 and died on October 16, 1810 at the young age of 38. Reb Nachman was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.
Rav Nachman had quite a grandfather to follow. He managed to breathe new life into Hasidic movement by combining Kabbala with in-depth Torah facts. He attracted thousands of followers during his lifetime and his influence continues to this very day. As a child, he followed the path of asceticism and prayer. He warned his followers not to abuse themselves physically, and emphasized having their life full of joy and happiness. His famous saying is "it is a great mitzvah to be happy." We can all adopt that one and benefit greatly. I wonder if the flower children of the 60's weren't trying such a philosophy.
There are now many Hasidic movements besides the Breslov. His religious philosophy was around the closeness to G-d and speaking to G-d in normal conversation "as you would with a best friend." Tevia, in Fiddler on the Roof" written by Shalom Alecheim, did this. This concept called hitbodedut is central to his thinking.
Rebbe, as he was a Rabbi, was born in Medzhybizh, Ukraine. Now, Jews went to Ukraine in the first place in waves from Khazaria, the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire and Byzantium between the 9th and 12th centuries and then again from Central Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Then they came also from Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries.
There were terrible massacres there during the Chmielnicki and Haidamak uprisings in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century the Jews came from Galicia and White Russia. Ukraine was always an anti-Semitic center and the scene of many pogroms in 1905 and from 1918 to 1920. The soviet government in the 1920's promoted Jewish settlement in the Ukraine using funds of the American Joint Distribution Committee in the regions of Kalinindorf, Zlatopol and Stalindorf. By 1930 there were 90,000 Jewish agriculturists there. About half of Soviet Russia's 3 million Jews lived there before WWII, but under Nazi rule, the Jews were wiped out by the Germans and Ukrainians fro 1941 to 1942. Jews living there in 1970 numbered 777,126 and by 1989 there were 484,129.
This year in pilgrimage it is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 Breslov chassidim will go to Uman from the USA and that about 20,000 to 30,000 will travel there from Israel. There they will visit the gravesite. They like to be there for the high holidays of Rosh Hashana, and at Chanukah and Shavuot. It's because this was when Rav Nachman delivered his formal lessons to his flock. On the last Rosh Hashana of his life, he stressed the importance of being with him for that holiday in particular. That's why this annual pilgrimage began. Uman is 400 miles away from the fighting, so they are not too worried. Security has been stepped up in Ukraine.
One of the strange occurrences involving the Rav happened in 1800. Rebbe Nachman moved to the town of Zlatopol and the townspeople invited him to have the final word on who would lead Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer services. A man was chosen to lead the final prayer service of Yom Kippur, the Neilah. This man did not meet the Rebbe's approval. Out of the blue, the man was struck dumb and forced to step down, causing him great embarrassment. Rav Nachman explained after the fast ended that the man's true intentions were not good and the man was so angry about what was said that he denounced Rebbe Nachman to Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola (the Shpoler Zeide), another prominent Hasidic rabbi. This started a nasty campaign against Breslov Hasidism. Well, even rabbis are human.
Being my family came from Lithuania and were closer to the Vilna Gaon (Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman 1720-1797) who practiced Mitnaggedim Judaism (the opposition to Hasidim) , we were not involved in Hasidism in those years.
Dov asked when that would be?
"When our Rabbi moves to Safed and lives opposite Mt. Meron where the famous Rabbi Bar Yokhai and his son are buried," he answered.
Building was already in progress to house the Rabbi and his followers in Safed, located opposite Mt. Meron. By the time I moved there, I could see it clearly at night in the beautiful black Safed .night-time sky loaded with twinkling stars as it also was lit up with lights.
The word in Safed was that the time was soon to come; some stretched it to be within the next 200 years.
References: The Jewish Press
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Legends of Safed by Dov Silverman