You would think that the director of the new movie, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman,” will surely be traveling to Uman for Rosh HaShanah. After all, several of the actors in the film, and several crew members will be going, so why not the film’s director? Since a lot of people ask me, I will try to explain the reason.
I have never been to Uman. I have friends who go there every year, and people in my family have made the trip, but I have never gone. Like the expression goes – live and let live - certainly whatever helps a person get closer to Hashem is a positive thing. I like Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. I love his stories. I’ve learned a great many things from Rebbe Nachman about serving Hashem, about tshuva (repentance), about simchah (joy), about emphasizing the good points, about always striving to go higher and higher…. But there is something else which I have learned from him, and from other great Sages, and that’s the exalted value of Eretz Yisrael.
I love Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. I’m crazy about Eretz Yisrael. Like the love of a man for his wife on the day of their wedding, I love Eretz Yisrael with a passionate love. It’s a love that gets stronger and stronger. Maybe because I lived half of my life in America, in a strange and foreign land, and only discovered Eretz Yisrael through a Heaven-sent flash of illumination while I was reading the Tanach on a beach in California, maybe because of that the Land of Israel is such a cherished treasure for me. King David’s teaching that we are to set Yerushalayim above our highest joy is something I feel in all of my bones.
So did Rebbe Nachman. He used to say that wherever he traveled, he was traveling to Eretz Yisrael. He said that his highest understandings of Torah only came after he had been to Eretz Yisrael. In the book, “Likutei Etzot HaMishulash,” a compilation of his teachings, Rebbe Nachman declares:
“The principle holiness of a Jew is that he merit to constantly rise to a higher and higher level in his service of Hashem, which is made possible through the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. And the principle victory in battle which a person must attain in this world is to come to the Land of Israel. And this is the main matter with which we busy ourselves from Rosh Hashanah until Simchat Torah – everything we do is to reveal the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, in order that we merit to quickly come to the Land of Israel. And this is what is (Kabbalistically) know as building the sefirah of Malchut, with which we are engaged during these days, as is set forth in the 'Shar Hakavanot' (of the Arizal). For the principle matter in building the Malchut is to reveal the Kingship of Hashem over all of mankind, which we pray for at this time of the year, and the principle revelation of Hashem’s Kingship is in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, the holiness of Eretz Yisrael is most poignantly revealed on Rosh Hashanah, as is written, 'For the eyes of Hashem are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year'” (Devarim, 11:12).
Of course, Hashem sees all of the universe in a glance, but on Rosh Hashanah, his focus is on Eretz Yisrael and on the prayers of the Jews in the Land.
In addition, Rabbi Nachman teaches: “The entire matter of the blessings which we say on Rosh Hashanah: Malchiot, Zichranot, and Shoferot, it is all in order to reveal the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, which is the essential place of the ingathering of the exiles, through the blowing of the shofar, as is written, 'On that day a great shofar shall be blown…'” (Yishayahu, 27:13).
“On Rosh Hashanah we begin to build and reveal the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. And during the Ten Days of Repentance, through the tshuva we do and through our petitions for mercy, we bring forth the ten levels of holiness of Eretz Yisrael, until Yom Kippur when we merit the most exalted level of the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, which is the Holy of Holies, and thus the High Priest can enter there… And after that, on the holiday of Sukkot, our worship with the Four Species, our “weapons of war,” comes to vanquish the forces which stand in the way of coming to Israel, those who speak evil about the Land, and to forge the way to Eretz Yisrael via the Clouds of Glory which went before us, and this is embodied by the succah… until Shemini Atzeret when the Yichud is fully completed, and this is an aspect of conquering the Land of Israel. This is why our simcha is increased, because a person must make Aliyah to the Land of Israel with joy, as we say in our prayers, ‘Bring us in joy to our Land’” (Likutei Etzot HaMishulash Vol.3, pgs. 238-240, Edition Sifre Rebanu Nachman of Breslov).
Our Sages teach that all prayers ascend straight to Heaven in Eretz Yisrael, without any celestial intermediaries or spiritual static caused by the impurity of foreign lands.
The Jewish People prayed for almost two-thousand years to return to the Land of Israel. Now that Hashem, in His infinite kindness, has allowed us to come home, it doesn’t make sense to me to leave the Holy Land on Rosh Hashanah for any reason in the world. Also, flying to the Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah from New York, Paris, or Melbourne, when one can easily come to Jerusalem, is equally puzzling to me, especially when our Sages teach that all prayers ascend straight to Heaven in Eretz Yisrael, without any celestial intermediaries or spiritual static caused by the impurity of foreign lands (Ramban, Vayikra, 18:25. “Orot,” Eretz Yisrael, 4, Rabbi Kook)
A few years ago, someone asked the kabbalist, Rabbi Leon Levi, of blessed memory, if it was OK to go to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. The Rabbi replied that it wasn’t a good idea, explaining that Rosh Hashanah establishes what will be in the coming year, and if a man deserts his wife and family on Rosh Hashanah, it isn’t a good harbinger for shalom bayit (peace in the home) and the Ukraine-bound enthusiast will surely suffer for it in the course of the year. He said that a trip to Uman, and to the gravesites of other holy Tzaddikim (righteous men) on the same trip, is something that can be considered once in a lifetime, if it will add to one’s awe of Hashem, but that there was no shortage of holy Tzaddikim buried in Eretz Yisrael itself, including our incomparably holy forefathers, and Rebbe Nachman’s teachers, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the Arizal, to mention just a few.
In Hollywood, before I became a baal tshuva, I suffered from a severe case of ulcerative colitis, which caused me daily bouts of intestinal bleeding. Learning about Tashlich in a book about Judaism for beginners, I walked to the Pacific Ocean on Rosh Hashanah and hurled my cortisone pills into sea, asking Hashem to heal me, which He did in a miraculous fashion.
Several years later, I was happily learning Torah in Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem when my parents phoned from America, asking me to come to New York for their fortieth wedding-anniversary party. I was so happy learning Torah in Israel that I didn’t want to interrupt my studies even for a very short visit to New York, even for the great mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, but they let me know, in the most dramatic Jewish fashion, that I would destroy their celebration if I refused to come. So I gave in and flew to New York. When I landed at Kennedy Airport, I followed the crowd to pick up my luggage. On the way, I stepped into a restroom, and lo and behold, a tsunami of blood poured out from my body. “Oh, no!” I thought. “Why did I ever come back to America?!”
I immediately understood, without any doubt, that chutz l’Aretz (the Diaspora) is not a healthy place for a Jew. A day after the wedding anniversary, I returned to Jerusalem, and thank G-d, the bleeding stopped. Years later, I told the story to Rabbi Leon Levi, and asked him why the bleeding had suddenly returned when I went back to America. He explained that when I had become a baal tshuva, I had formed a connection with the sefirah of Malchut, which designates the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Since the Land of Israel embodies the sefirah of Malchut, in its geographic manifestation on earth, when I left Eretz Yisrael I was, in a sense, turning my back on the Shechinah.
For detaching oneself from the Shechinah, you have to pay a price. Even though I left the Land to perform a mitzvah, I still was given a warning. It may be, as Rabbi Kook writes in “Orot” (Eretz Yisrael, 6), that there are tzaddikim, so deeply connected to the Land, who can temporarily leave the Land of Israel, in order to do a mitzvah, and return unscathed, but for the average and above average among us, Rabbi Leon said that the attribute of Malchut – the Shechinah - exacts a price: one person will have the anguish of missing a connecting flight; another will have a suitcase lost; another will have a fight with a parent during his or her trip; another will get sick; another will find some trouble waiting for him when he returns to Israel.
To give just one example, Rabbi Dov Begun, Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of Machon Meir, is beyond all question a Tzaddik and great lover of Eretz Yisrael. Years ago, when he decided to travel to America (his first and only trip to chutz l’Aretz) to raise money for the yeshiva, I helped him prepare a brochure. When he arrived at the airport in New York, the person who was supposed to greet him wasn’t at the terminal. So, Rabbi Begun found a pay phone and made a phone call to discover what happened to his driver. While he was speaking, one of his suitcases, filled with the brochures, which he had set on the floor by his feet, was stolen.
Welcome to New York! The next day, he was walking along Fifth Avenue near the Empire State Building when a strong wind ripped apart the shopping bag he was carrying filled with the brochures which he still had. The brochures scattered all over the avenue, and no one bothered to help him retrieve them. In addition to this anguish, it took him literally several months upon his return to Israel to get over the pain and shock of having witnessed firsthand the devastating assimilation of American Jewry.
In other words, it is no simple matter to leave the Land of Israel, and this esoteric observation can also help us understand why it is halakhically forbidden to leave the Land, except for a few specifically permitted reasons clearly set forth by our Sages.
So, I’ll be staying in Eretz Yisrael for Rosh Hashanah. I’m quite sure that if Rebbe Nachman were alive today, he’d be here too.