I keep discovering that Judaism means very different things to different people. Recently I was exposed to an expression of Judaism that is old yet new, inspiring to some and disturbing to others. I refer to grave-hopping and tzaddik-seeking; Jews spending significant amounts of time praying by the gravesite of a pious individual – an activity that some other Jews, even the very observant, actively shun. Jews will arrive in Israel for a two week trip and spend several of those days touring graves in the North, while other Jews criticize them for visiting the dead instead of hospitals, orphanages or yeshivas, or other sites of living Jewish interest.
Making such pilgrimages is something Jews, especially Sephardi Jews, have done historically, but it was never part of my Judaism growing up in a modern Orthodox home, and studying in a misnagdic haredi high school. Many of the people around me are taken aback by the idea of such activity, or even liken it to idol worship.
Recently, however, I visited Rebbe Nachman’s grave at Uman for the weekend with a Breslov friend. I have been fascinated by Uman for a while now, and jumped at the opportunity to go. I find myself much more able to engage with questions from within an experience, than theoretically from the outside.
While trying to genuinely open myself up to the experience, I wondered at the tremendous time and investment given to something that’s not a Torah mitzvah or even, as far as I know, a miderabanan. One is not meant to pray to the tzaddik, of course – one prays to G-d. From what I managed to ascertain, the idea is that the tzaddik’s soul is like an expert advocate, who knows how to “get around the heavenly bureaucracy” and can take one’s prayers much further than one can on one’s own. In this vein, Chazal stated that the whereabouts of Moshe’s grave is deliberately left unknown because otherwise people would come to pray and Moshe would cancel all harsh decrees immediately.
I found it confusing that all of a sudden instead of just myself and G-d there was another “person” present in my prayers – my Jewish conditioning having successfully inoculated me against mediators between myself and the Divine. It was, indeed, difficult to understand what role I should grant him there, without attributing to him divine powers. It’s rather a fine line.
True, I have seen enough people who pray daily and yet nothing moves. Perhaps prayers do get stuck somehow, and do not “get through.” But in the famous story of Honi HaMaagel, the miracle worker who ended droughts and brings rain simply by drawing his “magical” circle, Shimon ben Shetah sends this message to him: “Were it not that you are Honi I would have placed you under the ban.” He is upset that Honi so facilely overturns decrees that are meant to make the Jewish people think and repent. So too, perhaps, if the tzaddik’s soul or consciousness really can work wonders, it should not be the first course of action, the mainstay of our religion, but can represent a recourse when prayers get stuck midway between heaven and earth.
I may change my mind again, but as of now, several weeks after my trip, I must say I prefer a relationship with G-d that does not include other people, however saintly, or crutches like segulot. Although it may be true that all kinds of help may be solicited – I myself have seen things start moving after innocently praying for a few minutes by the grave of a saintly ancestor – I resent it. The G-d I grew up with told us, If you call to me sincerely, I will listen. If our prayers get stuck even though we called to Him sincerely, then He needs to honor His word, and not force us to turn to all kinds of secondary sources that can only take our attention away from our primary relationship with G-d.
() I read a fascinating book interviewing 35 different men who travelled to Uman for Rosh Hashanah by Dr Moshe Weinstock of Alon Shvut (http://www.datili.co.il/index.php?id=50225)
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