Just came back yesterday from a three-day jaunt to the town of Uman in Ukraine, where a very important eighteenth-century Hassidic rabbi is buried, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. While I am not a Breslaver Hassid, large numbers of non-Hassidic Jews regularly choose to make the pilgrimage to the gravesite of this holy man. Now that I have partaken, I would like to share my thoughts about this giant experience with you.
My trip was made with a group under the guidance of my beloved mentor, Yehudis Golshevsky. We walked together into a big, well-lit room with ample seating. This was the women’s section, filled at any hour of the day or night with ladies saying psalms quietly, weeping without shame, or carrying on a conversation with the Creator with Reb Nachman as a witness. There is a small area in which part of the gravestone is visible, covered in velvet and protected by plastic sheeting, on which at any given time between four and six women lean facedown as they shed their tears, pray, and call out for help.
Reb Nachman famously originated and encouraged the practice of setting aside time every day to speak out loud to the Higher Power in the manner one would speak to his or her best, most compassionate, most accepting friend. I think this is a fabulous custom. It takes some time to get used to talking aloud in this way, but trust me, the technique is way more powerful than just thinking internally. Even from a solely therapeutic perspective, it is a ritual that places you in the unique position of being both talker and listener.
When you not only articulate how you are and what you’re going through, but also hear yourself contemplating your life, there is a clarity that results. It makes it easier to sort things out and even improve them.
Yehudis instructed our group to use this opportunity to straighten out and cleanse all parts of our lives that bring us shame and reduce us to less than we would wish ourselves to be. We could also, she suggested, pray for others’ needs and, furthermore, for the world to be raised in its consciousness of and commitment to the Greater Good.
For some, the metaphysical qualities of Uman are essential to this effort. It’s the whole point of their journey. Rabbi Nachman specified ten psalms (out of the one hundred and fifty) to be recited when visiting his gravesite; they also say that on his deathbed, he declared: “I succeeded and I will succeed.” These words are taken to imply foreknowledge of the fact that his energy would endure in perpetuity and serve as a healing instrument. In fact, miraculous stories are told about those who show up to interact with the holy man’s spirit with respect and devotion.
Others do not buy into the whole kit and caboodle. That’s perfectly okay. Holy sites are available to the multitudes, no matter one’s religion of origin or the status of one’s faith. As long as those who enter do so respectfully, there is no problem to be had.
There’s no reason you should hold back, if you’re interested. It’s the choice to situate yourself in a geography that is peopled by human beings with a common desire to get some help from the universe. If you’re looking to self-renovate and refine your character, this might just be the support you need to take whatever leap is ahead of you in your effort to be a better human being living a better life.
If you don’t know what to think of all this, a little indecisive about God and prayer and not sure if you’re qualified for the encounter, don’t worry. Don’t imagine that only the prayers of celibate nuns and monks are answered. All you need is to open your heart.
Maybe something in you is saying: “Help.” It may be a whisper or a tear-filled supplication, begging for some cosmic reversal. A sick child, a natural disaster, or any form of emotional or physical catastrophe might lead you to turn skyward or down to your bellybutton for answers.
How can your situation be changed? Made better? What do you need in order to heal?
Maybe you want to expand your spiritual horizons to include true compassion and a desire to be a genuinely caring citizen of the world. We are complex human beings living in a less than perfect world, God only knows. But I think the world would be dramatically improved if people took the spiritual Olympics seriously. A spiritual journey is not necessarily a religious one; devout, ascetic religious observance is not a prerequisite for developing into the best human being you can be.
Everyone qualifies as a candidate. The only ticket is the sincere desire to be the finest You possible.