Essential Service of the Soul

There are some things that can be experienced but never described, and one of them is the depth of the connection between a Chassid and his Rebbe.

As someone who has never learned the sefarim of the Rebbe, Harav Nachman of Breslov, let alone traveled to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, I can’t even pretend to understand what these annual journeys mean to a Breslover Chassid. But, at the very least, I recognize that no outsider can possibly comprehend.

What I have tried to do over the past few weeks is to contemplate my connection to my mentors and how devastated I would feel if the path via which I recharge my own spiritual batteries would be forcibly taken away from me. Just imagining it proved to be a most awful experiment.

There are many compelling arguments out there why Jews should not travel this year to Uman. But none of them takes into account the role Uman plays in warming the soul of the tens of thousands of Chassidim who flock there each year. Among them are individuals I am privileged to know personally, refined individuals who find Rosh Hashanah in Uman to be an unparalleled and uplifting experience that gives them a spiritual boost powerful enough to last them through the year.

For Breslover Chassidim, Uman provides spiritual sustenance no less vital than food and water is for the body. For them, it is the ultimate “essential service”; something they and their wives are willing to be moser nefesh for.

As civilized societies throughout the world take different paths trying to contain the global coronavirus pandemic, one common denominator shared by all these countries is that there are certain types of activities which are deemed so vital that the governments themselves ensure that, despite the gravity of the health crisis, these activities must continue unabated.

In New York State, for instance, these included making sure that ice cream parlors and liquor stores stayed open. It also meant that anti-police protesters were permitted to gather in large groups — and even riot — in violation of otherwise strict regulations calling for social distancing and the wearing of masks.

In Israel, these untouchable activities include noisy late-night demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu, when tens of thousands gathered — with nary a hint of social distancing anywhere in sight. The right to protest, their defenders insist, is vital to a democracy.

Yet so is the right to freely practice one’s religion.

Those of us who are outside the Breslov community shouldn’t even attempt to judge what we can’t comprehend. Instead, let us respect the route they chose to take as they seek to cleave to Hashem through davening at the kever of a tzaddik, and do all we can to facilitate their avodas Hashem.

The government of Israel has a moral obligation to find creative ways to ensure that the Breslover Chassidim will be able to spend Rosh Hashanah in Uman, in a way that satisfies the health concerns of both Israel and Ukraine. It is all a matter of wanting to do the right thing.