Sunday, August 16, 2009

Searching for Spirituality in...Uman?

Arrive at any Religious Zionist Shul on Friday evening, and somewhere near the back you'll find a pile of what we call "Alonim" - parshah sheets. These sheets contain words of Torah, articles of interest, political diatribes, and of course, advertisements. (That's how they pay for the full-color publications.) If you want to get a real sense of the vibrancy and also the richness of religious life in Israel, you've gotta take a regular survey of these alonim. Many, many organizations publish different versions of a parshah sheet, from Machon Meir to Tzohar to Tzomet to Chabad to Yesha. In our shul alone, we get about fifteen different kinds.
One of my favorites is a very popular sheet called "Olam Katan", directed specifically towards teens. It's got a nice feel to it, and tries to speak to kids in language that they can relate to. We like reading a particular section of Olam Katan called שו"ת סליולרי - which means exactly what it sounds like: Shu"t stands for She'elot Uteshuvot - questions and answers - and "selulari" means "via cellphone". Basically it's questions about anything and everything in a text message - 140 characters or less. (In truth, the entire text-halachic question phenomenon deserves a post of its own. I'll get to it one day - just not today.) We like these questions because we sit around the Shabbat table sometimes and ask our kids the questions and see if they can guess what the rabbi answered.
This past week's questions included one about traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.


It's kind of hard to read (I highlighted the question in yellow), but the questioner says:
"It's very difficult for me to leave the Land [of Israel], but from another perspective, there is a promise from Rav Nachman for those who visit his grave in Uman. What advise can the rav give me on this issue?"
To this Rav Eliyahu (not sure which one - but I think it's Rav Mordechai Eliyahu) writes: "Stay in the Holy Land."
Good answer. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I find the entire phenomenon of leaving Israel to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah troubling. And it's a rather large phenomenon, from what I can tell. How can I tell? Because if you look at the advertisement to the right of the cellphone-question you'll notice that it's a large ad for...you guessed it, spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman.
Why do thousands of Jews flock to Uman to spend Rosh Hashanah near the grave of Rabbi Nachman? Sure, many of them are Breslover Chassidim. But many of them are not. What attracts 25,000 Jewish men and boys to a city in the Ukraine instead of wanting to stay home with their families, children and communities for one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year?
But looking at this phenomenon from a different perspective, is it not a rather strong indictment of the way we conduct our davening on Rosh Hashanah? Clearly, the people rushing to Uman are searching for something. They're searching for passion, spirituality, and a connection to God that for some reason they're not finding in shul, whether that shul is in the United States or in Israel.
Why not? What's missing? And why are many of our youth flying of to Uman to find it?