A brief digression: For three of the years I lived in Nachlaot, I lived across the way from a Moroccan kabbalist yeshiva. The Rav was one of the top students of the Baba Sali. The Baba Sali was one of the last of a long line of great and true kabbalists. When the weather was warm, they brought their chairs out into the street and he led the class in the learning of the primary book of kabbala, the Holy Zohar. It was not any kind of learning I had experienced.

Indeed, I have always shied away from learning the Zohar. I knew of no one who could teach me the secret keys to unlocking its true infinte depths and I recognize that I am not on the level to be an adept. So it was very strange and I had a kind of an ignorant awe and trepidation before this very different kind of holy man who was nearing the end of his life. Hard of hearing, his speaking was even more difficult for me understand. He was not someone to simply converse with.

Of all the souls associated with the yeshiva was one who projected a humble, amused sweetness. While young, probably in his early 30’s, I saw from the way others interacted with him that he was a particularly regarded rabbi. Over the years, whenever I would pass him, I was bow slightly and offer greetings with ‘Kavod HaRav’ – honored rabbi. He always smiled sweetly and gave me his blessing. I was never under any illusions of being in any way near his level, despite being some twenty years his senior and some slight man of Torah within my community. He was infinitely more refined.

Walking through the square in Uman, I came upon him and offered my greetings. He received me with great love and joy. I told him how I hoped to somehow arrange a journey for Sunday to Brelsov, and Medzheboz. He said that this was also his plan and that he would take care of everything. I just had to meet him at 9:00AM in the square.

Filled with energy and feeling light, I bounced to the mikve and minyan, early in the morning. We hooked up, found two young men in their 20’s and found ourselves in cab and on our way.

Arriving in Kiev Thursday night and not having ventured yet beyond the Breslov enclave in Uman, I had yet not seen or experienced anything of the Ukraine. Even now, just contemplating the drive alone, brings awesome trepidation.

The focus of the trip to Breslov was to visit the grave of Rebbe Natan, the top student of Rebbe Nachman and transcriber of his teachings, as well as author of the most high precious Breslov books, Lekutei Tefillot (collection of prayers he composed based on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings) and Lekutei Halachot (commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the compendium of Jewish law, again, based on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings). The ultimate goal was Medzheboz, the shtell and grave of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement 250 years ago. The Baal Shem is, not coincindentaly, the great-grandfather of Rebbe Nachman.

This was one of the most momentous days of my life. I could not have anticipated the throughts and emotions that would be stirred in me. The ride alone was filled with an unrelenting explosion of awesome, humbling realizations.

The Ukraine holds a critical but difficult and contradictory place in Jewish history. On the one hand, it was a place where the greatest of light shown forth from and to the Jewish People from the great masters. It is also a place that held unrelenting terror of the worst pogroms and persecution we have known. Whether from Ukrainian Cossacks as in the Chelminietzky massacres or Russian persecution at the hand of the Tsar’s or Church or Soviet Union or even the wiping out of whole communties by the Nazi’s during their occupation, all within an crushing poverty that knew no rest, the Ukraine is watered with the blood and tears of millions of Jews.

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