Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Are You One of the 36?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b) relates that the world will only continue to exist as long as there are at least thirty-six tzaddikim (fully righteous people). These individuals are often referred to as lamed-vavniks, because the Hebrew letters lamed and vav have the numerical value of thirty-six. Rabbi Aryeh Levin was once asked if he was one of these hidden tzaddikim. His answer was very warm and kind, just like his personality; he said, "sometimes." This answer provoked further interest. He elaborated that becoming one of these righteous people is not an appointed position. It's not like you are named a tzaddik and then take your seat on a panel (such as a United States Supreme Court Justice, for instance, who receives a lifetime appointment). It's not a job - it's a level - and anyone can achieve that status, even if only for an hour, a minute or a second. After that individual finishes their task, someone else takes their place through their good deeds.

Rabbi Levin's perspective provides an instructive understanding of what it means to be righteous. It gives hope for all us "simple" Jews. You could actually be that next person to reach the level of lamed-vavnik. Here are a few possible ways:

- Privately (so as not to embarrass the recipient) drop a check in the mailbox of someone you know needs help covering basic necessities. One of the key character traits associated with lamed-vavniks is performing acts of kindness anonymously whenever possible.

- Prepare a meal for someone who is sitting shiva, just gave birth to a child, or at any other time when a family typically has their hands full and can't cook for themselves.

- If you're not in the financial position to do the above, there are kind acts that don't require any money, such as speaking words of encouragement to someone going through a difficult time in their life.

Especially during this hectic period right before Passover, think of the myriad of virtuous deeds any one of us can do if we put our minds to it. There's a reason why the Talmud regards the need for righteousness as so crucial that it actually sustains the world: because a small candle can light up a dark room. When there are even a handful of people taking care of one another, it provides hope for a world plagued by hatred, narcissism and indecency.

You may not always recognize them, but there are people achieving the level of lamed-vavnik all over the world right now. If we try to emulate the character traits associated with this lofty title, we might be able to reach that status, even if only for a moment. When we do so, the next time we're looking for the identities of these hidden tzaddikim, we'll be able to find at least one by looking in the mirror.