A while back I heard a joke regarding Elul, the Hebrew month which precedes Rosh Hashanah. It’s widely known that in Hebrew, ELUL is an acronym representing the sentence from the Song of Songs: “Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li” –”I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” However, in light of the growing popularity of pre-Rosh Hashana pilgrimages to Uman, the Ukranian city where Rebbe Nachman of Breslev is buried, ELUL has humorously come to stand for “Ani Le’Uman Ve’ishti La’ima shela” – “I’m going to Uman and my wife is going to her mother’s.”
I smiled at that joke in the past, but today I know that it is no laughing matter.
Tens of thousands of Breslev Hasidim and spirituality seekers of all kinds leave their homes to begin the New Year by the Rebbe’s tomb. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. “A man wants to go and pray on the grave of a holy man, a Tzaddik, to soak up the spiritual atmosphere and make a request or two. Maybe his prayers will be answered, and maybe he will get a better future for his family. Such a wish should be encouraged, not stopped,” you might think.
Unfortunately, at Yad L’isha, the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, we have seen over and again that this wish to spend the holiday in Uman may not always be as innocent as it appears.
Anyone visiting the rabbinical courts in the weeks before Rosh Hashana will find the halls full of couples in various stages of their divorce proceedings. The men have all received warrants forbidding them from leaving the country – a standard divorce procedure meant to ensure that their wives are not left stranded without a get, and that their children will continue receiving child support. With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, these men have realized that they will not be allowed to travel to Uman, and they begin pressuring their wives to ask the courts to rescind the warrant, “just for the holiday.” Even their rabbinical judges beseech the women: “Let him go, he’ll return,” or “It will do you good, he’ll go pray for a good life.” Convinced or coerced, the wives agree; they come with their husbands to sign off on their husbands’ trips.
“For the 14 years we were married, my husband wasn’t able to handle the challenges of marriage,” says Michal, one of Yad L’isha’s clients. “On the one hand, he wanted me to have a baby every year, but on the other, he couldn’t handle the hardships that this involved. Every time we fought, or when a new baby was born, or when things got tough, he needed to get out and ‘get some air’ – which really meant visiting Rebbe Nachman in Uman. He always said he needed to go because he felt an uncontrollable urge to pray, but I knew he was just running away from the hardships of life. Now he is in Uman again, but this time we are in the middle of the divorce proceedings, so nobody knows when or even if he’ll ever return,” she says.
Sadly, Michal’s case is not unique. Nor is Rachel’s: “I was in the middle of the divorce proceedings when my husband’s lawyer contacted me and begged me not to sign the request asking the court to issue the warrant prohibiting him from leaving the country,” Rachel relates. The lawyer used every possible form of promise and emotional manipulation: “He only needs to go for ten days”, she said. “He has to go; he needs to clear his head, and when he returns in a few days he’ll give you the get.” Meanwhile, the ten days have turned into five months. Rachel’s husband is still in Uman, and has no plans to return to the country anytime soon. He has found a job there as a Kashrut supervisor, and being abroad has enabled him to attach unreasonable conditions to the divorce Rachel seeks – conditions he would never have dared to propose had he not been allowed to leave the country.
So what happens now? When a woman who is in the middle of divorce proceedings comes to Yad L’isha and says her husband wants to go to Uman, we tell her, “If he wants to go to Uman so badly, and wants the freedom to do so, let him first grant you freedom.” Once he grants her the get, then he can go pray at Rebbe Nachman’s grave as much as he likes.
And if you, my dear woman, are afraid of what the rabbis will say, and what your husband might do if you do not let him leave the country, well… Rebbe Nachman himself addressed this issue. As he said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all.”