Refreshing the soul, with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

The last few days, I was really feeling the heat allegorically and physically.

My landlady has been telling me since last Summer’s 43heatwave that you ‘don’t feel the heat’ in Jerusalem – but of course, she’s wrong. And since L’ag B’omer, I was sitting in my house slow roasting along to constant 40plus heat for weeks already – and I was starting to crack.

Then there was all the ‘regular’ madness if you can call it that. So much to do every day, so many chores to take care of, so much stuff on the boil, personally and nationally.

So I told my husband: we need to go to Uman for Shavuot.

Despite our lack of cash, he borrowed some money and made it happen, God bless him. Then there was another wrinkle in the plans: women weren’t allowed in the Kever for the whole of Shavuot. Did I mind? Of course, yes I did. But I had to get there one way or another, so I made up my mind to have a different sort of Uman trip, minus Rebbe Nachman’s actual grave.

The hotel was understated but quite nice, quite quiet (relatively…) food was simple buy yummy. I had three whole days to try to get my head in order. There was yet another ‘wrinkle’ in the plans, inasmuch as we made plans to head out to Uman the same night that Rabbi Berland then called his atzeret in Hevron last week.

So, we figured we’ll go early to Hevron stay for half an hour, then bomb it back home, try to catch some sleep for an hour a half, then roar off to ben Gurion. In the meantime, there was another wrinkle in that plan, too: when I got home at 11pm Thursday night, it turns out one of my kids needed some urgent help to get her bagrut art project done and turned in on time.

So (long story…) I spent two hours sewing body parts together for 18 felt dollies, before spending 10 minutes packing my case like a madwoman, before departing for Uman.

Obviously, our taxi man didn’t show up in Kiev. Or rather, he did, but just not where we were expecting him, so we had to spend an hour combing the carparks to find him.

But when we actually got to Uman it was nice. Like, pretty much almost ‘normal’ – which was so weird to me, I spent the first day and a half trying to work out how to react to it. Usually, I hit Uman and I get the massive stomachache, the massive challenge, the massive insight, the massive something…. This time, nothing massive.

This time, just lots of walking around and around Uman itself, as I couldn’t get near the Kever and I couldn’t stay in a hotel room for 3 whole days without going totally bonkers. So I discovered all sorts of back alleys and new places in Uman that I’d never been to before, and certainly never by myself.

On Isru Chag, I decided to spend the day walking around Gan Sofia.

In the past, I’ve seen extending walks around Gan Sofia as something only ‘lightweights’ do, instead of pulling all-night prayer sessions by the kever, but as the Tzion was still barred to womenkind, it struck me as just the thing to pass the time. I spent the best part of a day just walking under trees that were three storeys high, bathing my eyeballs in luxuriant green and Victorian water features, and felt so very lucky.

Hey, there’s something to this, after all….

Walking back from Gan Sofia, I got some insight that Rabbenu’s grave is very chazak spirituality – so chazak, it can and does fry people’s brains out of their heads, sometimes. In our spiritually-dead days, most of us need a jolt like that, an electric shock of kedusha like that, to try to get the soul back from its flat-lining position.

But this time around, I also got why Rebbe Nachman used to request that his followers also visit Gan Sofia when they come to Uman, too.

Gan Sofia is total gashmius – the polar opposite of the intense kedusha that is the Tzion.

But we need both, in order to serve God properly.

But in the correct order and dosage, i.e. first the spirituality, and only as an after-thought or a dessert, the gashmius and materiality.

Second day in, I had this amazing dream that Moshiach is coming into the world next week.

I woke up in a really good mood, and it seemed like a ‘real’ dream to me. I needed that good vibe, as I came home to a tip.

We let a teenager have the house with her friends, and one of them managed to shatter the shower door all over the bathroom floor. There’s no milk in the house, they’ve moved all my stuff around…

But I got another ‘message’ from Uman this time around, which was to shower my teenagers with as much love and compassion and understanding as I can, whenever I can, because in this dark generation, unkind words can just propel our children straight into the clutches of  the tumah, God forbid. So I kept my temper and didn’t go off into rant mode.

The world is very hard to ‘be’ in at the moment, especially if you’re trying to put at least some focus on kedusha and God.

The filth is literally seeping in under the doors and through the walls. It’s permeating the atmosphere and degrading everything it comes in contact with. It’s hard to continue, some days. It’s hard to think straight. It’s hard to pray.

Before I went to Rebbe Nachman in Uman, current events had made me feel more than a little despairing about being able to raise my children in anything like a ‘healthy’ spiritual environment. We’re in a little bubble here in Jerusalem, but even here, the cracks are starting to deepen and the tumah is seeping through.

There is a relentless and effective ‘war’ being waged against the soul, and against kedusha, and against God, especially by the media. It’s claiming so many casualties, it’s truly frightening to witness how fast the moral fabric of the world is unravelling.

Which is where Rebbe Nachman really came in to his own.

Torah is eternal. Tzaddikim are eternal. Mitzvot are eternal. The Jewish people are eternal.

Even though the battle for the Jewish soul is currently very intense, if we stick close to our true tzaddikim like Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Berland, they will act like spiritual bulwarks, absorbing and deflecting most of the ‘cack’. So somehow, us and families can come through the fighting unscathed.

But without that bulwark?

I dread to think.

You might also like these articles about Uman:

The Uman Experience – Part 9

Uman Redux

Uman explodes

For a few years’ now, I’ve had precious little patience for people who claim to be doing ‘the best they could’

– as they continue to mistreat their nearest and dearest; cheat on their taxes; lie to everyone, about everything, and generally act like horrible human beings.

I mean, really. How can they possibly claim to be doing ‘the best they could’? Do they think I’m retarded, or something?

But after this trip to Uman, something fundamental has changed in my outlook, and strange to say, I’m actually starting to see how these people really are doing ‘the best they could’, after all.

When people are raised, for whatever reason, in environments that are very harsh, critical, cold and unloving, it literally rewires the way the energy flows in their body; the way they think; they way they see things; and the way they act.

They don’t act the way they do because they want to be horrible, hateful, deceitful, selfish people.

They are acting the way they do because they got stuck in ‘survival’ mode, spiritually and energetically, and they can’t see any way out.

Until a few days’ ago, I also couldn’t see any way out for them. Logically, if people aren’t even willing to take the first basic steps in becoming self-aware, and can’t even conceive of being willing to change, or to work on themselves, or to ask G-d to help them out of the rut they’re in, then how can anything ever change?

It takes a lot of work, effort and time to change. It takes an awful lot of prayer. It takes an awful lot of teshuva. And a lot of people today, especially the ‘interesting characters’ in our midst simply don’t have the inclination or energy to invest in the process.

So it seemed to me, they were stuffed.

But after this last trip to Uman, I’m really starting to believe it’s possible after all. How? They just need someone, anyone, to pray for them, even a little bit, and then G-d will do the rest.

Rebbe Nachman made a promise that if someone came to his tomb and said the Tikkun HaKlali, and gave a penny to charity, that he would do everything in his power to help them, and pull them out of hell.

There’s an idea in Judaism that if someone can’t perform a certain mitzvah themselves, that you can be their shaliach. It hit me this time round that I could say the Tikkun HaKlali and give charity on behalf of a whole bunch of people, and then they’re automatically going to start getting the help they need to get out of ‘hell’.

Hell doesn’t just mean that very hot place you go to when you die. People can and do experience ‘hell’ while they’re still very much alive.

Just ask anyone who’s addicted to drugs, alcohol or internet porn; ask the workaholics who hate that they spend 18 hours at the office, but can’t see any alternative; or the people who are trapped being superficial caricatures of themselves, unable to ever have a real conversation with anyone, including G-d.

It’s hell, mamash.

And Rebbe Nachman promised to get these people out, if they’d just follow his instructions.

Now, you might say that you can’t do Tikkun HaKlalis on behalf of others without their permission, but there’s a story about two Breslev elders that puts that idea to rest.

When Uman was behind the iron curtain, very few people managed to get there. One of the Breslev elders of the last generation had been privileged to be there a few times, and another Breslev elder who’d never managed to get there asked him to ‘sell’ him one of his recitations of the Tikkun Haklali.

He was willing to give in return all the heavenly reward for his mitzvoth and Torah learning – and remember, we are talking here about a giant of a man, spiritually.

That story showed me that you can do ‘surrogate’ Tikkun Haklalis, and this trip to Uman, I got another bit of the puzzle: Rebbe Nachman really wants us to do it! He wants us to pray for other people that are never, ever going to make the trip themselves (at least, the way things stand at the moment).

He wants everyone to get out of hell, both in this life and the next.

Even those people who despite doing ‘the best they could’ are still leaving a trail of destruction, evil and suffering in their wake.

Our job is just to pray on their behalf, just to be G-d’s shaliach, and then He and His Tzaddikim will do the rest.

One of the tangentially really cool things about sending your husband to Uman for Rosh Hashana is that he always comes back with a few interesting stories. A few years’ ago, there was the near death experience story of the 70-something secular man who got a Heavenly reprieve once they found out he’d booked his first ever trip to Uman.

Another year, there was the ‘reincarnation’ story of the Moroccan guy who somehow knew Russian and had an intense spiritual experience in Uman that showed him he’d been there before, and had a huge amount of things to fix, this time around.

Then, there was the story of one of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s close assistants, who came to Uman for his first Rosh Hashana, heard a voice telling him he was ‘nothing’ by the grave of Rebbe Nachman, and then heard the same voice a few months’ later telling him his baby son was second’s away from drowning in the local pool – just in time for the father to find him, and save him.

My husband heard all these stories first hand, from the people who’d actually experienced them. This year’s batch were a little less supernatural as these things go, but still cool. My favourite two are as follows:

Dick Cheney and Rebbe Nachman

One of the guys staying in the same flat as my husband in Uman was a regular who’s been coming to Uman from Canada for years. One year – the year the Twin Towers came down a couple of days’ before Rosh Hashana – all flights to the Ukraine (and every where else) were cancelled from the North American continent, while the world was struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had just happened.

Undeterred, the Canadian and 25 friends of his still showed up at Toronto airport, to see if they could get to Uman after all. After being told repeatedly there was no chance, and that no flights were leaving Toronto to anywhere, period, the group started singing and dancing, waiting for their miracle to happen.

Guess what? They got one.

Then US Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney was stranded in Kiev at the time the Twin Towers attack happened. The Americans were refusing all planes permission to land – even one carrying Dick Cheney – so the plane carrying him from Kiev was diverted to Toronto airport.

Once there was an empty plane standing on the tarmac at Toronto airport ready to fly back to Kiev, the ground staff figured they may as well let the 25 people bound for Uman fly out on it after all…

Rav Arush and his books

One year, Rav Shalom Arush showed up to Ben Gurion with a whole bunch of books to take to Uman. The check-in staff flat-out refused him permission to take them on the plane, and called the manager. All the while, the Rav didn’t argue, he just carried on praying. The manager came out, and immediately recognized him.

He told him: “Rav Arush! Your books saved my life!”

You can guess the rest of the story I’m sure….the books made the flight, no questions asked.

There’s always more stories to tell about Uman. If you heard one you want to share, drop me a line or share it in the comments section. And don’t forget to check out ‘The Stolen Light’, which has a whole bunch more amazing-but-true stories from people who spent Rosh Hashana in Uman.

So, you remember my daughter’s friend who nearly died as a result of an allergic reaction to medication she was given, three weeks’ ago? (Baruch Hashem, she came out of hospital this week, thanks to everyone who prayed for her.)

Well, on the back of that, and my daughter’s reaction to what had happened, I decided we had to go to Uman ASAP.

Usually I try to go with a tour group where everything is taken care of and arranged for you, but this time round, I told my husband to book whatever flight he could find and arrange whatever lodging was available, to get us to Uman before school started.

We went for a 36 hour round-trip, and as with all trips to Uman, it was eventful.

Usually when I go by myself, I just in the Kever and do some longggg praying sessions. But this time, I had a couple of kids to think about, and when one of them showed up right at the beginning of my planned 6 hour prayer-a-thon, I realised God was giving me a steer to re-prioritise.

Getting my priorities right, and achieving balance between ‘me’ and ‘family’ has been an ongoing struggle for me, for years already. So when I got the nudge to stop praying, and to actually spend some time with my kids in Uman, I took it as a sign.

Rebbe Uman wrote something like:

‘It’s a shame to be in Uman, and not visit the Sofia Park.’

On most of my trips, I’ve shunned the outing to the Sofia Park to spend more time praying at the Kever, but this time round, we ordered the taxi, and went.

The Park is beautiful – full of the sorts of mature trees that I used to see in abundance in the UK (which is pretty much the only thing I actually still miss.) We spent a very calm, tranquil couple of hours walking around, and having the first ‘lazy Sunday’ type outing we’d had in a decade.

It was so nice.

But then I pondered, is this really what God wants me to be doing?

To put all this time, money and effort into coming to Uman just to spend time wondering round a landscaped park?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was ‘yes’.

Because even though we’re souls clothed in bodies, the body still needs some time and attention, and giving it what it needs is actually an enormous mitzvah. I’m learning this lesson very slowly still, but I felt this trip to Uman underlined it for me.

Usually, I dump my bags in my room, and rush straight off to the Kever. This trip, we wandered around the pizza place and makolet buying food before we even got to the apartment. Then, my kids started browsing in one of the local 24/7 trinket shops (that doubles-up as the French Crepe Café) before any of us had even got anywhere close to visiting the kever.

It was the opposite of how it usually is for me: materialism in place of spirituality; spending money on ‘stuff’ instead of giving it away to charity; doing the tourist thing around Gan Sofia instead of doing six hours by Rebbe Nachman’s grave.

But strangely, this trip to Uman started to teach me some very profound lessons about achieving balance, and noticing my family, and the importance of just being. I sat in the park, and just sat. I sat on the bench waiting for a kid to pick out a cheap ‘Uman’ souvenir, and I just waited. I sat by the side of the road for an hour waiting for the taxi to show up that was going to take us back to the airport, and I just looked at the sky and breathed.

I realised, I do this so little.

I’m so busy in my head, in my writing, in my ‘doing’, that even when I’m praying, I’m still ‘doing’ instead of ‘being’.

In Uman, you get that flash of clarity, that lightning bolt, that lights up the whole path for a moment, an hour, a day, and shows you where you could actually get to in your life. Then you get back on the plane, and it all goes dark again.

The challenge is to recreate that clarity, and to integrate it into your own, real life. That’s what I’m trying to do now, but I already know I have an uphill struggle to stop doing so much, and to start being more.

But now Rabbenu’s shown me the way, at least now I know it’s possible.