The other day, I finally finished reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Though I could write a book recommendation (and I do recommend it!), I’m skipping that today in favor of talking about a concept in mystical Judaism I was introduced to through the story: the idea of lamed vovniks, 36 people who carry the fate of the world on their shoulders.
“God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. These thirty-six are are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.” -Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessing
Basically, no one knows who these people are. In some variations of the story, even a lamed vovnik does not realize who he is. They are compassionate for the sake of being compassionate, so they would not recognize themselves as special. Because the lamed vovniks don’t know who they are, nor does anyone else, it is important to always act as though one were a lamed vovnik and to treat others as if they might be. It is also possible that one of the lamed vovniks born in a generation could turn out to be the Messiah (and if you believe Jesus is the Messiah, it could also work in retrospect–that he was a lamed vovnik of his times).
There are a lot of other interesting points, such as the pain that lamed vovniks might feel at human suffering. Going by Schwarz-Bart’s Le denier des Justes, it seems to me that they would be very empathic; he even goes so far as to refer to them as “vessels for human suffering”.
“For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs. … When an unknown Just rises to Heaven, a Hasidic story goes, he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise.” -Schwarz-Bart, Le denier des Justes (The Last of the Justs)
I’ve also been thinking that it says a lot about God…that if He needs only 36 people in this big, wide world to be good enough for the rest of us to go on existing, it is obvious that He cares about us not only because we are human, but individually. Who we are, each and every one of us, matters and is integral for this life to work. People often hang back from doing the things they want to do because they feel like it’s too big for them, or that it’s just not enough. They think they’re useless because, well, what can they do? One person can’t change the world.
And it’s true. One person can’t change the world by working alone. But one person can set off a change of events that will change the world. After all, if only 36 people are needed for God to decide our planet is still doing well enough to exist, then think of what one person could do for mankind.
Final thought for today is this:
Do you have lamed vovniks in your life, people who keep everything from collapsing regardless of whether you recognize their efforts or not? Do you think they realize who they are? Are they friends, family, strangers? Can you name any of them?
I’ll post my answers in a comment. It would make my day if you could do the same! (: