It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end.
— Rabbi Zwerin
And the Lord said, if I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
I thought of Lamed Vavniks the other day when reading about the sad, sad state of the world (Scandal After Scandal, Lie Upon Lie …. What’s Going On?) This particular article opined that many of the people running Wall Street and D.C. are—literally—psychopaths.
I believe it. What are psychopaths but people who do not care about other people?
Though what, I asked myself, does that have to do with me?
GREAT AND SMALL
Many things that occupy our attention are not of the here and now.
Three times in my life, for example, I’ve been wakened by violent earth-shaking. One of those times, half-asleep, I looked out my bedroom window and searched the blue ether for a flash and mushroom cloud, finding neither.
“Earthquake, thank God.” I murmured, and went back to sleep.
Later that day a cousin from New York called.
“Is everyone all right? We thought you fell into the ocean.”
That’s the way of it. Great things happen, and still we must sleep.
SIMPLE, HUMBLE WALKS
I was talking about Lamed Vavniks.
Have you heard of them? Here’s what you need to know:
Lamed is the Hebrew letter standing for thirty. Vav is the Hebrew letter standing for six.
The Lamed Vavniks are the thirty-six righteous ones, but for whose sake God would destroy the world.
Lamed, by the way, is pronounced LAH-med (rhymes with Mohammed) not LAME’d rhymes with famed.)
The Lamed Vavniks live morally pure lives in the simple, humble walks, hiding in plain sight as tailors, cobblers, carpenters. A Lamed Vavnik might not even know s/he is one. Certainly no one else does. Yet for their sake God preserves the world, even as it goes to hell.
Are you a Lamed Vavnik? If you were you wouldn’t say so. And if you did then you wouldn’t be.
It’s best, by the way, to treat everyone as if they were.
THE TAILOR’S GIFT
Once there was a poor tailor who barely made enough to eat, yet somehow he always had a penny for the local beggar. Whenever a customer complained about his work, he’d say, “This one’s on me.”
The tailor lived in a little shack at the edge of town. He was sometimes seen in the synagogue, but knew very little Hebrew so he always prayed silently. The townspeople thought he was a fool.
One day the rabbi’s daughter was struck ill. She lay in bed, feverish and out of her mind. The doctor was summoned and could do nothing. Prayers went up from the synagogue, but the rabbi knew in his heart he must prepare for the worst.
On the evening of the third day it snowed. The poor tailor appeared at the rabbi’s house.
“What do you want?” the maid said. “The rabbi has no time for you.”
“I’ve brought some ribbons the rabbi’s daughter,” the tailor said.
“Ribbons? What need does she have for ribbons?” the maid said.
“It’s what I have.”
She took the package, but only to rid herself of the foolish tailor, who shuffled off into the night. When he’d gone, she threw the package into the snow after him.
In the morning, the house woke to singing. The rabbi’s daughter, sitting up in her bed, was tying the ribbons to her hair.
“What’s this?” the rabbi said.
The maid confessed what had happened last night.
“But how did you get those ribbons?” the rabbi asked his daughter.
“The tailor left them on my dresser,” she said.
At once the rabbi led a party of townspeople to the tailor’s shack to demand an explanation. But when they arrived the tailor was gone, the shack bare except for a few remnants of cloth.
No one from the town ever saw the tailor again.
I get so angry when I think of those banks, those psychopaths running the world. But I don’t know whether I’m angry because what they do is so wrongheaded or because they have more money than I do.
The legend that there are at least thirty-six non-psychopaths comforts me. The world needs a moral compass, even a made up one.
I used to think that stories of the Lamed Vavniks were a retreat into fantasy, when really we ought to be taking action. But I don’t think that way anymore.
The essence of the Lamed Vavniks is that they are ordinary, and they point us to ordinary things.
Here is my favorite story about ordinariness in the face of the world going to hell. It concerns the power outage in the aftermath of the pre-dawn Northridge earthquake of 1994.
In the darkened city, the full night sky suddenly became visible. According to the astronomer Terrence Dickinson, concerned people who had gone outside and looked up later telephoned radio stations and observatories to ask if the strange, silvery ribbon that appeared in the sky had anything to do with the quake.
Apparently, they had never seen the Milky Way.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
The Last of the Just – A famous and difficult (in every sense) novel about a Lamed Vavnik. If you liked the Book of Job, this is for you.
Image Credits: Under the Milky Way photo by Jurvetson (flickr)
Chagall’s The Fiddler and The Village are in the public domain in the United States.
Do you suspect someone of being a Lamed Vavnik? Tell. Tell. Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
If you like this post and have a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account, please consider sharing it by clicking one of the buttons below: