Excerpt from Rabbi Zwerin’s Kol Nidre Sermon, September 15, 2002:
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. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed, which is 30, and the vav, which is six. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim.
And who, we might ask, are these righteous ones? Well, the legend maintains that they are each extremely modest and upright, often concealing their identity behind a mask of ignorance and poverty, and usually earning their livelihood by the sweat of their brow.
The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim are also called the Nistarim (concealed ones). In our folk tales, they emerge from their self-imposed concealment and, by the mystic powers, which they possess, they succeed in averting the threatened disasters of a people persecuted by the enemies that surround them. They return to their anonymity as soon as their task is accomplished, “concealing” themselves once again in a Jewish community wherein they are relatively unknown.
The lamed-vavniks, scattered as they are throughout the Diaspora, have no acquaintance with one another. On very rare occasions, one of them is “discovered” by accident, in which case the secret of their identity must not be disclosed. The lamed-vavniks do not themselves know that they are one of the 36. In fact, tradition has it that should a person claim to be one of the 36, that is proof positive that he is certainly not one. Since the 36 are each exemplars of anavah, humility, having such a virtue would preclude against one’s self-proclamation of being among the special righteous. The 36 are simply too humble to believe that they are one of the 36.
The question that this mystical account always raises in my mind is why are such people needed to keep the world aright? Can not the world maintain its balance out of the amalgam of seven billion people, the vast majority of whom are good? Certainly, there are exquisite souls among the faithful of all religions who exude goodness and righteousness in their daily deeds.
In most religions such people are called saints or pious ones or and they are viewed as being holy — recognized as unique and set apart. In the Catholic church such people are honored for their service to the community and for the miraculous deeds they performed or for the visions they experienced. In eastern religions, there are extraordinary teachers — swamis, gurus, bahgwans — who by their self-discipline and their instruction have a profound influence on their disciples. Around the world, there are shamans and healers — medicine men and women — pastors, priests, thinkers, scholars, survivors, care-givers, rescuers, counselors, donors of time, builders of community, charitable money people, donors of body parts even … selfless souls who plunge into swirling rivers, dart into burning buildings, pilot choppers and tugs under the worst of circumstances — do such awesome and fearless things as to leave us all agape.
There are those who for personal or religious reasons maintain keep a constant watch against lust, greed, anger, attachment, and ego — who in their daily life, consistently try to stay above the influence of self aggrandizement and amoral attachments. And there are those who believe in and practice daily living in peace, with love and kindness toward all, and in harmony with nature and neighbors.
In Jewish folk tales, Elijah is depicted as a beggar in the streets waiting for one sweet person to look past his rags and wounds and offer him a kindness — a drop of drink, a morsel of food, a shelter from the elements.
But such is not the condition of the 36 — the lamed-vav tzadikim. They are not saints; they are not holy people, they are not recognized or known even to themselves. They simply are what they are and in their very being, they somehow sustain the world!
Imagine what would happen if every co-worker, and manager, and boss, and CEO were to think that somewhere in the organization or in the office or in the store, some field worker, secretary, nurse, custodian, is a lamed-vavnik or a messiah, or a guru, or a saint. No one could discount someone else, or back-bite, or invent stories, or even gossip about another. And how could one even consider perverting the audit, or treating themselves to a huge interest free loan, or taking millions from a troubled company as a farewell bonus.
And no one could imagine firing thousands of fellow workers as a first step solution to a corporate problem — and no one could imagine dropping a pink slip on a co-worker who just might be one of the 36 … two days before a holiday.
Just imagine what would happen in our families if we entertained the notion that one of us had inner, spiritual talents yet to be recognized. What would happen if we treated each other all the time with dignity and nobility? That would mean no yelling and no put-downs, and no putting off chores and tasks that others rely upon. It would mean showing concern for parents at all times; it would mean not taking children for granted; it would mean letting each other share in our thoughts and feelings without fear of being discounted or embarrassed or ignored. It would nurture patience and trust and faith. The word “family” might even come to mean something other than … obligation, stress, and car pooling.
And what might happen if we treated ourselves as if we were one of the 36? We might be, you know. So long as we don’t think that we are, we are still in the running. Perhaps we might just take life a bit easier — be less prone to criticize and over-evaluate. If we were one of the 36, why, the world rests on our shoulders. Where we go, it goes; how we act shapes it and influences the spheres. Our every little act of tolerance, tzedakah, kindness, patience, friendship … our every commitment, each positive emotion, even a smile can change the world for the better.