Every year thousands of Bratslaver chassidim and others leave their families at Rosh Hashanah and travel to Uman in the Ukraine in order to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who died 210 years ago.
Visiting the graves of our ancestors has a long history and is already referred to in the Talmud, which suggests that the twelve spies who were sent into the land of Canaan to check out the land also visited the graves of our forefathers in Hebron.
However, grave visiting can easily turn into a form of idolatry. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Moses’ burial place is unknown.
Expecting the deceased to intercede for us before God when it comes to finding a marital partner, having children, being cured of diseases or being successful in business is a form of superstition that should have no place in Judaism.
The Torah warns against diviners and sorcerers, and forbids consulting ghosts, familiar spirits and inquiring of the dead. Maimonides went so far as to say that people should not visit the graves of the righteous, for “their words are their memorial”.
Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but not when their behaviour endangers the lives of others.
As our country grapples with the coronavirus with many hundreds already having died, we need to do everything we can to stop it spreading. Many of us will not travel overseas this year, both in order not to be infected as a consequence and also not to import further cases of this deadly epidemic to challenge even further our embattled health services.
And here are the Bratslaver chassidim doing everything in their power to force the government to allow them to travel to Uman. The ultra-orthodox do not have a good record in terms of responding appropriately in these challenging times. Approximately one third of all infections in Israel have taken place in their communities.
What is even more depressing is to hear that Arie Deri and Ya’akov Litzman are using their political clout to pressure Bibi to open the floodgates and allow the chassidim to travel. As former Health Minister Litzman ought to know better!
Both of them need to remember that the mitzvah to take care of our lives takes precedence over grave visiting.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is quoted as having remarked: “Does one have to travel … to visit the graves of the righteous? When I feel the need to pray at the graves of the righteous, I go to Mt. Herzl to the graves of the soldiers who fell in the sanctification of God’s name”.
But then, the Bratlaver chassidim, most of whom avoid military service, can hardly be expected to understand what that means.