A Journey to Uman & Rebbe Nachman
by Prof. Elie Wiesel, z”l
In the airplane that brings us from Paris to Kiev on a cold October morning, in 1990, we have a minyan for the shacharit service. Wrapped in tallitot and with tefillin ringing our foreheads, we are saying our prayers. A young Breslever Hasid is officiating. He has a melodious, fervent voice, filled with beauty and melancholy. Marion and our traveling companions are watching us in silence. Marion seems taken by these prayers. That is unusual for her.
It all had begun with a surprising question “Would you like to visit Uman?” Clément Vaturi asked me one day. “I’m going there with a group of chasidim.” We had met Clément through his sister and brother-in-law, Alice and Daniel Morgaine. I knew Daniel from his days as a journalist at France Soir.
“Did you say Uman? In the Ukraine?” “Yes,” Clément answers. “Does that mean something to you?” Does it mean something to me? The word is part of my intimate, imaginary landscape. Uman was the last home of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, the marvelous storyteller of the movement founded by his grandfather the Besht [the Baal Shem Tov]. It is the place where the Rebbe is buried.
Rebbe Nachman is close and precious to me on more than one level. He makes me dream. I love everything that touches him, everything that refers to his life, his work. I love everything that is impregnated by his universe—the stories of princes who lose their way and of exalted beggars, his tales of unknown worlds, his biblical ideas and commentaries, even the comments he used to make at the table. “Take my stories and turn them into prayers,” Rebbe Nachman used to say. Well, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll turn his prayers into stories.
An old wreck of a bus is waiting for us at the Kiev airport. The guide is there, the driver is not. The guide is running around looking for the driver. Now the driver is there, but the guide cannot be found. We extract him from a sort of bar. Finally we’re all ready. We get to Uman toward the end of the afternoon, after a horrendous drive across fields and villages where peasants and children stare at us blankly.
We see nothing of Uman, a small hamlet where no Jews live anymore. We’ve come to tell the late Master of our love for his teaching, to meditate and pray on his grave. We plead for his intercession—Rebbe Nachman had promised his followers, “Whosoever will recite psalms on my grave—in the prescribed order—I will help him.”
By now, night has fallen. The wind is determined to blow out the candles we’re holding to shed light on our psalters. The flames resist. Our shadows dance on the wall behind the grave. In the street a few villagers seem scarcely surprised by our presence. They’re accustomed to seeing Breslev Chassidim, especially around Rosh HaShanah. Such was the Master’s wish: to attract to Uman as many followers as possible for the High Holidays. And they came. Even during the Stalin era they crossed the frontier illegally to be with the Rebbe, who, before dying, had promised his disciples that his flame would continue to shine until the coming of the Messiah. Some of the disciples were arrested, thrown into prison.
Rabbi Kenig of Tsfat, son of the famous Reb Gedalia, recites the psalms. We repeat them after him. There is an air of mystery to our gathering around this grave, for, in general, there is no cult of the dead in Judaism. And yet… There comes a moment when Rebbe Nachman’s followers stretch out on the tomb of their Master, dead for more than two centuries. And I too stretch out beside them. And deep down I too address my secret requests to Rebbe Nachman.
Then a chassid starts chanting a Breslev melody, and we all join in, repeating the words drawn from a psalm of King David. We repeat them fervently, our eyes closed, our minds aflame. And we start dancing around the tombstone. It’s getting late, all the better—one prays better at night. It’s getting cold; never mind. We dance the way chassidim dance, hand in hand, flinging our arms from front to back and our heads up and down. At first we dance slowly, then faster and faster, our eyes shut, our hearts open, our souls seared by a burning wound; we dance as though we were being drawn to the heights of those prayers that go up all the way to the seventh heaven; we dance like madmen whose beings stretch out toward the Being, whose fire wills itself to become incandescent. No one will be able to stop us, no power will be able to muzzle us; we sing as we weep, we weep as we sing, and from afar, very far, I believe I’m hearing a strange and yet uncannily familiar voice, and it is telling very beautiful but extremely disquieting stories, in which princes and beggars meet in enchanted woods and inflict harm on one another in order to better fight evil and sadness. Now and then, exhausted and out of breath, one of us tries to stop the dance or at least to slow its rhythm, but then another begins to dance with new vigor. And we go on.
We take our leave of Rebbe Nachman with regret. I knew I loved him, but I only now realize just how deep my attachment is. Though I am a chassid of Wizhinitz, I had claimed Breslev as my own, never acknowledging how profoundly I was tied to him.
In the bus we are silent. The young Rabbi Gabbai passes around almonds and dates brought from Tsfat. To me they have a special taste. I think of Rebbe Nachman and of his adventurous journey to the Holy Land. Hardly had he set foot there when he felt the need to tear himself away and go back home.
I, too, believe that a part of me has remained in Uman.
Excerpted from “And the Sea is Never Full” by Elie Wiesel, Schocken Books, New York, 1999, pgs. 290-292. Reprinted with special permission from the author.
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