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The Lamed Vav

I stumbled onto a new concept the other day, one that I had not run into previously. Thatís what comes of over-filtering the information you allow to penetrate your normal daily thoughts -- definitely, a dangerous and growth-limiting practice. It almost pains me to say that it popped up as a linked side-reference during a websurf on a completely extraneous subject. And it shames me to admit that the worldwide internet may have some vicarious value after all...

Lamed and vav are two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In the traditional system of Kabbalist numerology, they represent the value 36: lamed = 30, vav = 6. According to Jewish legends, there always live thirty-six men, the Lamed Vav, who are also called Tzadikim Nistarim or the "Hidden Just Men". They are usually poor, unknown, obscure and survive by the sweat of their brows. No one can guess that they are the ones who bear all the sorrows and sins of the world. They donít even know it themselves. It is for their sake that God does not destroy the world, even when sin overwhelms mankind.

When one of the Lamed Vav dies, another is immediately chosen to take his place. The new Tzadik Nistar does not even know he was chosen for the task. The Lamed Vav are scattered throughout the Diaspora, and have no acquaintance with one another. On very rare occasions, one of them may be "discovered" by accident -- in which case the secret of their identity must not be disclosed. Indeed, it might be said that if one of the Lamed Vav realizes that he is a Tzadik Nistar, a new one must be chosen to replace him. A true member of this special group must possess such a copious measure of humility that he could never conceive of himself as being a member of that group!

In the Jewish folk tales, the Lamed Vav, as occasion demands, are compelled to emerge from their concealment and divert impending disasters from a persecuting enemy or other community threat. They accomplish this using mystic powers that they unknowingly possess. Work complete, they return to anonymity and blend once again into the community. No one knows about the good deeds they have performed. 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.

According to the legend, so long as the Lamed Vav continue to serve humanity and God in this fashion, the world will go on. But if at some point God is unable to find someone just and good enough to replace a dying Tzadik, the world will end immediately!

Perhaps every Jewish kid over the age of five knows about the legend of the Lamed Vav. Why this particular 58-year-old goyim never heard of it, I accept as a black mark denoting my lack of ecumenical breadth and width. Despite the delay in data acquisition, the concept is utterly fascinating to me. I think the closest comparable Christian analogue is that of a Saint. Iíve often pondered the idea of Sainthood, more particularly the paradox that, if one ever thinks of himself as a Saint, he loses his membership to that club instantly! Jesus said that the meek will inherit the Earth, and I often think of that preposterous notion when someone jumps in front of me in line at a store, or gets promoted over me at work because of his talent at blowing his own ass-horn, or cuts me off in traffic. I donít know what planet Jesus was thinking about when he uttered that statement, but it definitely wasnít the Earth I grew up on.

There are thirty-six pious Jews in the legend, but in my own mind I prefer to expand the potential membership to any human beings at all. As of 11:04 pm EST 6/22/05, that population set is estimated to total 6,449,457,854 souls. I donít give a rip what the particular religious bent is of the person whoís helping to save the world. If somebody has the requisite moral character, any old guy or gal will do for me. Myself, I donít particularly want the job -- not enough fringe benefits associated with it. So Iíll eliminate myself right here and now: "Iím one of the Lamed Vav!"

How about you?

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Reference material extracted/paraphrased from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/l/lamed_vav.html (Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.) and http://www.americanet.com/Sinai/resources/sermons/Zwerin_YKKN02.html (Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin).  Thanks, fellows!

 

 

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