The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day. Jewish mythology
On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of world, the beginning of a New Year full of possibilities. In the weeks leading up to our High Holy Days, however, I have encountered many events that make me doubt those possibilities.
Evidence of climate change impacted our summer travels. In Frisco, Colorado, we watched helicopters dump water and flame retardant on a mountain only six miles from my daughter’s home, one of many wildfires burning throughout the West. In July, Larry and I traveled with a group on land tours of Norway and Iceland. The first country was magical; the latter was other-worldly; both were beautiful. But Norway, like most of Europe, was experiencing the hottest summer in history, and farmers were facing withering crops and dry pastures for their domestic animals. Meanwhile, Iceland had weeks of record-breaking cold and rain that resulted in rotting crops.
We returned home to the news filled with stories of corruption and indictments at the highest levels of our government, our mailbox filled with contentious election with ads vilifying good people with lies, and, the television blasting information about the latest mass shooting, this time in Jacksonville, Florida. None of this made me feel hopeful for the coming year.
In the final scene in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and his neighbors are gathering their meager belongings to leave their “tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka” after they are evicted by the Russian government. Motel the tailor suggests to the rabbi that this would be a good time for the Messiah to come. ”We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.” the rabbi replies. “Meanwhile, let’s start packing.” Yes, I agree with that wise rabbi: we could use a miracle.
I didn’t get a miracle, but thanks to Laurie Clevenson, editor of the Jewish World, I did get a heartfelt lesson in Jewish mythology that renewed my faith.
In the book of Genesis in the Tanakh, God concedes to Abraham that He would spare the city of Sodom if the patriarch could find just ten righteous men. We know how that ended: Not even one such man could be found. Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah were destroyed, and Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.
The Biblical passage developed into a Talmudic legend. In every generation, says the sages, there are thirty-six righteous people upon whose merit the world is kept from entire destruction. The Lamed-Vav tzaddikim, as they are known in Yiddish, are“humble servants of their fellows,” states an eponymous website, “tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion, and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer.”
The Righteous Among Us
Abraham desperately sought just ten such people five thousand years ago; in more modern times, the count is raised to the mythical Double Chai; the number 18 (meaning life) times two. These individuals are hidden, so hidden that no one knows who they are, not even the others of the 36. When one of them dies, another is secretly “crowned,” waiting anonymously, silently, humbly for his or her call to come forward and help repair the world.
I feel we have examples of Lamed-Vav tzaddikim in our own history. Abraham himself comes from obscurity to become the father of the Jewish people. Against all odds, David slays Goliath; Judah Maccabee leads a rebellion against those who want us destroyed. The Lamed Vav website also gives examples of women: Ruth, an ancestor to King David, preserved not only Naomi, but future generations by being faithful. Esther, through her selfless bravery, saved her Jewish brethren from from certain destruction. And Deborah, instrumental in delivering Israel from Canaanite bondage, later served as judge. Each of these individuals came from the shadows to keep Judaism alive.
And we have all known such people in our our lifetimes. I have been fortunate to meet what I consider Lamed-Vav tzaddikim through my writing. Claudia “Clyde” Lewis supported and advocated for her sister Andrea, who was born with intellectual disabilities, resulting in Andrea living a life never initially imagined by those who wanted her institutionalized. Tony Handler, 79-year-old seven time cancer survivor, has served as a beacon of hope for those who are diagnosed with the dread disease. The sole member of his family to survive theHolocaust, Harry Lowenstein immigrated to America to become a successful Florida, businessmen and the person behind the construction of the Kissimmee synagogue. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Lowenstein, “and I was determined to build another one.”
I loved the entire process of writing each one of these stories: interviewing each person; researching background information; writing and re-writing draft after draft to make sure I captured their voice in a story in which they would be proud.More importantly, I loved learning about each of these tzadakim, these people who quietly have made their mark on the world to make it a better place.
Three Leave Positive Legacies
In the past month, I believe we have lost three of the 36. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, not only moved us with her songs and her voice but also was a leader in the civil rights movement. Senator John McCain, the maverick senator from Arizona, was lauded as a war hero, a public servant, and one of America’s great champions. Admired by both sides of the aisle, Senator Charles Schumer stated that his friend was “never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become so rare.” Hours after McCain’s death, news of Neil Simon’s passing was announced. The Pulitzer prize-winning Jewish playwright had revolutionized Broadway with his funny but biting views of Jewish urban life. Each of them shaped our world with a positive, long-lasting legacy.
Hope and Mitvahs
In a 2010 Rosh Hashanah article, Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan spoke of “the thirty-six blessed humble souls whose merit keeps society from falling apart,” those individuals whose character and deeds are so exemplary that being around them raises those around them to a higher level. With billions of people on the planet, she suggests remembering the African saying, “It takes a village.” “If we could develop 36 lamed-vavnik communities,” Rabbi Danan suggested, “we could have the critical mass to tip the balance of human history in a new direction.”
No matter what the number, this beautiful myth offers hope that the morally outstanding individuals can somehow affect the whole world. What can we do? First we need to treat everyone as if he or she is a Lamed Vav, as we never know—despite anyone’s level in life—if that person is a chosen one. Secondly, each of us should strive to be kind, compassion, and a mensch. Maybe one of us is a hidden Lamed Vav Tzadik? And finally, we can each be doing whatever we can to be a positive force in making a difference in the lives of our family, our community, and our world.