Rebbe Nachman's Gravesite
Every year, thousands of men (in 2007, over 40,000!) leave their families and travel to Rebbe Nachman's gravesite in Uman, a military city located in the Ukraine, to spend Rosh Hashana with "the Rebbe."
Why? What's so special about Rebbe Nachman's gravesite?
Before Rebbe Nachman passed away, he called for two of his closest followers, Rabbi Aharon, the rabbi of Breslev, and Rabbi Naftali of Nemerov, and asked them to act as witnesses for an unusual vow. He proclaimed, "If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity and says these ten Psalms (the Tikkun Haklali), I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom. It makes no difference what he did until that day, but from that day on, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolish ways" (Tzaddik #229).
This declaration was revolutionary. No other tzaddik had – or has- ever made such a promise. And because of the magnitude of this promise, Rebbe Nachman's followers still yearn to pray at the Rebbe's gravesite in Uman!
Rebbe Nachman, like other renowned kabbalists before him, such as the ARI, explained that a tzaddik has the power to elevate all souls, including those that have not made even the slightest move towards spirituality. A tzaddik's special connection with God has the power to elevate anyone who comes into contact with him, drawing him closer to God.
A tzaddik has attained such a level of self-mastery and connection to the Divine that all his thoughts, feelings and actions – his very being – are completely consonant with God's will. This gives him a uniquely close relationship with God. In essence, what distinguishes the tzaddik from everyone else is his ability to bridge the physical and spiritual worlds. Being in the proximity of a human being who has attained such an exalted level of holiness will cause a person to yearn deeply to come close to God.
"Tzaddikim are greater after their passing than during their lifetimes" (Chullin 7b).
The tzaddik's power is limited by the confines of his physical body. But after death, when his soul ascends to much greater levels, he acquires more power to draw others close to God, and in that way, to rectify their souls.
When we pray at the gravesite of a tzaddik, on a certain "soul level" that tzaddik is there with us. Rebbe Nachman taught that the burial site of a tzaddik is as holy as the Land of Israel, and is infused with a type of holiness that will arouse us to come close to God. Just standing next to a tzaddik's grave works a metaphysical wonder: our souls can become bound with the soul of the tzaddik without the physical impediments of this earthly world.
The time-honored Jewish custom of visiting the graves of tzaddikim is first mentioned in the Bible. When the spies entered the Land of Israel, the Torah says, "And they ascended from the south, and he came to Chebron" (Bamidbar13:22). Since there were twelve spies, why does the verse state, "And he came to Chebron"? Rashi explains he refers to Caleb. Caleb wanted to be saved from the counsel of the spies and therefore went alone to pray at the graves of the Patriarchs.
Caleb learned the importance of praying next to a tzaddik's grave from his ancestor, Yaakov. When Yaakov's wife, Rochel, died, Yaakov buried her by the side of the road, rather than in the nearby village of Beit Lechem (Bethlehem). He foresaw that in the future, when Nevuzaradan would drive the Jews (Rochel's descendents) into exile, they would pass by her grave. When Rochel would see them, her soul would weep and entreat God to have mercy on His children.
The ARI writes that it is a great mitzvah to draw close to God by visiting the graves of tzaddikim. Through praying at such a grave, we can bind ourselves to that tzaddik, and even acquire some of the tzaddik's holiness. Because we are aroused to repentance by the power of the tzaddik, our prayers are more acceptable. At the same time, the tzaddik will entreat God on our behalf.
Yet Rebbe Nachman's promise to his followers is even greater! "If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity, and says these ten Psalms (the Tikkun Haklali) I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom! It makes no difference what he did until that day, but from that day on he must take upon himself not to return to his foolish ways.
Breslever Chassidim say that when a person travels to Rebbe Nachman's grave, the Rebbe will also pull him out of this worldly quagmire, and elevate him to new spiritual heights. Because of Rebbe Nachman's promise, Breslever Chassidim have been willing to endanger their lives and suffer financial privation for the privilege of praying at the Rebbe's gravesite in Uman.
Reb Natan said, "Even if the road to Uman were paved with knives, I would crawl there just so I could be at Rebbe Nachman's grave."
Under normal circumstances, a movement cannot exist without a leader. In most Chassidic groups, when one rebbe dies, a new rebbe (usually a son or close relative) is chosen to succeed him. Since Rebbe Nachman did not have a successor, it would have been natural for his followers to drift apart until the Chassidut disappeared.
But Rebbe Nachman's closest disciple, Reb Natan, who was only thirty years old at the time of Rebbe Nachman's passing, could not accept that the Chassidut would end with the Rebbe's death. After all, Rebbe Nachman had told his disciples that if they followed his teachings and worked on developing and purifying themselves, people who had never known Rebbe Nachman in his lifetime would become attached to him, and they, in turn, would bring even more people to the Chassidut. The Rebbe promised, "I have accomplished (in my lifetime) and I will accomplish (after I leave this world)."
When Reb Natan returned home from the Rebbe's funeral in the fall of 1810, he thought about what steps he could take to maintain Breslever Chassidut. He recalled the words of wisdom that he had heard from Rebbe Nachman during the years that he had been his disciple, especially those having to do with the importance of visiting the tzaddik's grave.
Less than four months after the Rebbe passed away, Reb Natan hired a carriage and traveled from village to village to gather Rebbe Nachman's followers and bring them to the Rebbe's gravesite. They arrived on Rosh Chodesh Shevat (January 1811). This was the first time that a group of Chassidim traveled to Uman for the express purpose of praying at the Rebbe's gravesite.
From then on, the Chassidim joined together to pray at the Rebbe's gravesite several times a year, taking advantage of these gatherings to give each other encouragement and to form a cohesive Breslever community. As the Rebbe's followers developed disciples of their own, more and more Chassidim made the trip to Uman, until the city turned into a focal point for the Chassidut.
A large number of Chassidim chose to make the pilgrimage to Uman on Rosh Hashanah. The Rebbe had often spoken about the importance of being together with him on Rosh Hashana to channel the new year's blessings. And, as we have learned, a tzaddik's influence is greater after he has left the world.
During Stalin's regime and under the eyes of the KGB, Breslever Chassidim risked their lives to pray at their Rebbe's gravesite in Uman. With the opening of the Iron Curtain, more and more Jews throng to Uman each year, for the privilege of benefiting from Rebbe Nachman's promise.
To find out more about trips to the Rebbe's gravesite in Uman, call: 972-2-5323339.
Much of the material in this article was taken from Against All Odds, published by Breslov Research Institute 2005.