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Rosh Hashanah Eve: “How to be a Lamed-Vavnik in a Troubled World” 5771 (2010)

September 8, 2010
by Rabbi
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Erev Rosh Hashanah: How to be a Lamed-Vavnik in a Troubled World

Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Congregation Beth Israel, Chico, CA 5771/2010

Have you heard the Yiddish word, kaynahoreh? (Keep away the evil eye). My great-grandmother used to say that all the time that she mentioned something good. Which reminds me of a story:

Mr. Finkelstein is called as a witness in a trial.

“How old are you?” asks the D.A.

“I am, kaynahoreh, ninety one.”

“Excuse me? What did you say?”

“I said, I am, kaynahoreh, ninety-one years old.”

“Sir, the clerk can’t type unusual words, please just answer the question with no embellishments,” says the D.A. “I ask you again, How old are you?”

“I told you. Kaynahoreh, I’m ninety-one.”

The D.A. is really getting annoyed. The judge is also losing his patience. He instructs, “The witness will answer the question simply and plainly or be held in contempt of court!”

The defense lawyer rises and says, “Your Honor, I think I can resolve this. May I ask the question?”

“If you can get this trial moving, please, be my guest.”

“Mr. Finkelstein, let me ask you, kaynahoreh, how old are you?


Mr. Finkelstein replies, “Ninety-one!!”

According to Jewish tradition, the world, or more precisely recorded history, is now (kaynahoreh!) 5771 years old. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of world, the beginning of a New Year full of possibilities. But in recent years it has seemed more like the fate of the world was hanging in the balance. Even though we’ve had a nice summer in Northern California, you only had to turn on the news or take a trip to see and feel the effects of environmental stresses and global climate change. The economy has pulled back from the brink, but continues to struggle, leading to deep cutbacks in education and social welfare around our state and nation. We have not solved the fundamental problems of human rights for all, equal rights for women around the world, or peace in regions of violence. While technology advances by leaps and bounds, human development and interpersonal ethics often seem to proceed by baby steps, and we wonder how long humanity’s saga on the planet can be sustained under these conditions.

But the world has always been full of troubles and challenges. Our ancestors, too, asked: How does this world keep going? Enter the legend of the lamed vavniks, the thirty-six blessed humble souls whose merit keeps society from falling apart.

Have you met some humble person .whose character and deeds were so exemplary that just being around them raised you to a higher level, made you want to do a little better? Hopefully we all know at least one or two people who seem to be living their entire lives on a different plane. Take a moment to think of someone you know who fits this description of a humble, gentle, person who lives so purely by his or her ideals. Now I invite you to take just a minute to share with someone near you.

If you thought of someone who fit that description, you may have met a lamed vavnik, one of the 36 hidden saints. The story that I told earlier this evening is one of countless legends about these humble, hidden saints who secretly sustain the entire world.

The concept is many centuries years old. We first hear of it explicitly in the Talmud [Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], where the sage Abbaye is quoted as saying, “The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day,” (the Shekhinah meaning the indwelling presence of G-d in the world). His proof text is from the biblical book of Isaiah 30:18, Ashrei kol hokei lo, “Happy are all those that wait for Him.” (The word “for Him” in Hebrew, Lo, spelled lamed-vav, equals 36 in gematria, Hebrew numerology, and that of course is the official source of the number of the hidden saints.)

The number thirty six itself is symbolic, meaning twice the value of “Chai” or life (18 in Hebrew numerology), but the origins of this tradition may go back much further. The famous professor of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, once theorized that the tradition of the Lamed Vavniks reaches back to ancient pagan astrological beliefs in 36 ruling deities of the sky (each governing 10% of the 360 degree horizon), which became a concept of 36 great leaders in Hellenistic thought. But the more conventional Jewish explanation is that the concept of righteous people saving the world derives from the Torah, in Genesis, when Abraham asks G-d to spare the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah as long as 10 righteous individuals can be found. Of course, as we say, “two Jews, three opinions.” Naturally the Talmud contains a number of different opinions on the true total of the hidden righteous. Thirty six might not do it. Perhaps there are 18,000 righteous, based on the book of Ezekiel. Perhaps there are about 75, and they certainly include gentiles as well as Jews. It is a universalistic tradition that has parallels in some of the Christian saints, Buddhism’s bodhisattvas and in Islamic Sufi mysticism there is a belief in 40 hidden saints who sustain the world.

How do the Lamed Vavniks keep the world going? Some say by the practice of compassion. As Dr. Naomi Remen’s relates in her popular book, My Grandfather’s Blessing. Her grandfather told her as a child: “Anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world…It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so… [The Lamed-Vavniks] respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

The poignancy of this endless compassion was best expressed French novelist Andrew Schwarz-Bart in “The Last of the Just,” his post Holocaust novel about generations of the Levy family, a family of lamed-vavniks. He writes of the pain that can result from having the compassion of a true lamed-vavnik:

“Rivers of blood have flowed, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.”

But what can the tradition of the lamed-vav mean to us today? Is it just a quaint folk tale, or is there something there to inform and inspire us? I think that we have great difficulty today feeling that our deeds have any impact. The world is so huge and complicated that even the experts are often wrong. Thanks to modern media technology, we know about things going on around the globe almost as they happen, which may lead us to feel responsible and yet powerless in doing anything to alleviate the world’s problems.

The idea of the Lamed-Vavniks offers hope that the individual, at least the morally outstanding individual, can somehow affect the whole world. Indeed, according to the Talmud and to Maimonides (in a text that we will study on Friday morning), we don’t really know the weight of our every individual act on the world as a whole. We usually look to the world’s leaders to do everything, but the concept of being G-d’s partner, like the legend of the lamed-vavniks is that it may really be the little people behind the scenes who are going to save the planet. It is the original version of the saying, “think global, act local.” Your small individual deeds may ultimately have a global impact.

It used to be hutzpah to consider oneself a lamed vavnik. But with the state of the world today, I think that we all need to give it a try. We should look at the models of those we know who live those extra-righteous lives, and try to take one step in their direction. Because in order to heal our planet, we need to do more than advance our technology. We need to develop our character, our compassion, our hearts and souls. Lamed-vav, 36, represents twice the value of the word, “life.” Sometimes I think we have to work twice as hard to be a mensch today. We have to cultivate twice the kavannah, twice the level of intention, in order to live a good life amidst the continual distractions of media and materialism. And in addition to thinking of other people, our generation has to be lamed-vavniks of preserving God’s creation as well.

Here’s an example of one person who set out to act like a lamed-vavnik. We learned that the sage Abaye said the lamed vavniks, “greet the presence of the Shekhinah each day.” A contemporary psychotherapist writes how he was given the impossible task of treating criminals in a very dismal and hopeless jail setting. The only way that he could cope was by following the model of the lamed-vavnik, striving to greet the Shekhinah in every person. He learned that according to Talmudic tradition, the Shekhinah is the feminine, compassionate aspect of G-d, that embraces repentant sinners, comforts those in pain and lifts up the lowly. The therapist entered the jail, not with a goal of employing the most brilliant therapeutic tactics, but with the intention of being truly present in the most painful situations, of seeing his clients as tragically damaged human beings who were nonetheless formed in G-d’s image. His work went from being a seemingly impossible challenge to being “one of the most profound learning experiences” of his life. And who knows how many people in the world were ultimately affected because this one man practiced compassion?

Contemporary American Rabbi Rami Shapiro theorizes that we all take turns being the lamed-vavniks. He says, “The tipping point for maintaining human life on this planet is thirty-six people practicing the sacred art of lovingkindness at any given moment. These need not be the same thirty-six people at each moment, however. I believe that people step into and out of the lamed-vavnik role. . .Right now, at this very moment, there must be thirty-six acts of lovingkindness occurring on the planet, or the collective weight of human ignorance, fear, anger, and greed would crush humankind. The fact that ….the world is still functioning means that someone, or rather thirty-six someones, are carrying out the lamed-vavnik obligation.

“But what about the next moment? Can you really afford to let … the entire world rest on the shoulders of others? Or should you consciously pitch in and take up the challenge of being a lamed-vavnik yourself? And, if you do choose to step in, can you afford to do so alone, or should you bring a few others along with you? . . .Once you realize that the whole world depends on you…you will not lack in opportunities to serve. Just remember that you are a hidden saint. While it is fine to invite others to join with you, make sure you don’t advertise your own saintliness. While being a lamed-vavnik may be good for your soul, it doesn’t belong on a resume.”

Finally, today, it may take a village to be a lamed-vavnik. At a Jewish Renewal retreat, I heard someone say that with the scale of the world’s population now, thirty six righteous individuals aren’t enough. We need thirty-six righteous communities. If we could develop 36 lamed-vavnik communities, we could have the critical mass to tip the balance of human history in a new direction.

We have a remarkable community right here at CBI. People come from the big cities and are amazed by the vitality of our community, by the warmth and friendliness of our congregation, and the lively spirit of our prayers. But what would it mean to be a lamed-vav community? What will our prayers feel like then, what will our Shabbats be like? How will our community look when we view one another, not judgmentally, but with an open heart? What deeds of lovingkindness will we do for one another, what amazing social action and tikkun olam projects will we undertake for the broader world? Let us make some time this season to dream and to imagine the kind of lamed-vav community we can build together in the coming year.

To live in the model of the lamed vavnik is to feel the sorrow and pain of the world, but also to greet the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence in everyone and every moment. It is to never know for sure the full impact of your deeds, but to do them anyway, because the humble person you see before you may be one of the 36…or it might be your turn today. May we be blessed this year to begin to renew and transform our congregation into one of the future lamed-vavnik communities of the world, a place where our hearts our open to one another, where kindness is the norm and compassion is the daily mode of living. Amen.

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