Elie Weisel tells us that God created mankind because God loves stories. The 36+ Lamed Vovnick stories are some of the stories that touch my heart the most. The Lamed Vav Tzadikim (ל”ו צדיקים or “the Lamed-Vav(niks”, refers to a special group of at least 36 unknown Righteous people. The source is the Talmud itself where Rabbi Abaye said that at all times there are at least 36 very special people in the world. This belief is based on a Talmudic statement that in every generation at least 36 righteous “receive/experience the Shechinah,” the Feminine Divine Presence (Sanhedrin 97b; Sukkah 45b).
In the 19th and 20th centuries Hassidic Judaism and Yiddish proletarian writers expanded this Jewish tradition of 36+ righteous people whose role in life justifies the value of mankind in God’s eyes, by adding that if even one of the minimum 36 was missing, the world would come to an end.
The Lamed Vavniks are scattered throughout the world. On 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 know, and would be astonished to learn, that they are one of the 36+. So every Jew should honor and respect all the poor, simple, honest, unselfish, hard working and long suffering people around us; for one of them may be one of the 36+.
Unlike the rich, the famous, the scholars, the powerful, the beautiful or the successful, who everyone thinks are very important, the 36+ are the really important people because in a generation that only has the minimum 36, if even one of them was absent society would destroy itself through cynical self-centered hedonism.
The minimum needed differed from sage to sage. Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai believed, “the world never lacks 30 righteous people” (Genesis Rabbah 35:2) while Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak says (Ḥullin 92a. and Midrash Psalms 5:5) “the world exists by the merit of 45 righteous people”. And according to Rav Judah, the number 30 represents the number of “righteous gentiles among the nations of the world” (Ḥullin 92a).
In my previous article I shared Lamed Vovmick stories about a righteous gentile in Nazi Germany, and a Polish convert to Judaism in 18th century Poland. Those were historical events stories.
Now I share a more traditional Syrian fable story about an event that may never have happened the way it was told, because it always happens in various other ways. The fable’s theme is the power a pure hearted simple person’s righteous plea should, and sometimes does, have:
Once there was a great drought. A rabbi called all the Jews of his village to the synagogue. They prayed day and night, but still no rain fell. Then the rabbi declared a fast, and asked God to answer their prayers.
That night he heard a voice from heaven, saying, “God will send rain only if Rahamim, who always sits in the back corner of the synagogue, prays for it.” “But he’s an ignoramus,” protested the rabbi. “and I am not sure how kosher his home is.” Silence was the response.
When Rahamim came to the synagogue the rabbi said, “Tomorrow you will lead the congregation in prayers for rain,” “But I do not know how to pray,” said Rahamim. “There are so many others who know more than I.” “Nevertheless,” said the rabbi, “it is you who must lead the prayers.”
The next day the rabbi called all the people together to pray. The synagogue was filled to bursting. All eyes were on the place where everyone expected to see the rabbi leading them in prayer. How great was their amazement to see poor Rahamim standing up there before the Holy Ark, holding a clay jar with two spouts in his hands.
“Now I ask that you pray with all your heart,” the rabbi told the congregation. So they opened the Ark, where the Torah scroll was kept, and the people poured out their hearts to heaven, wailing bitterly and beating their breasts.
Then Rahamim lifted up his jar, first placing one spout to his eye and then the other to his ear. Instantly there was a rumble of thunder and then the sky opened up, drenching the earth with rain.
The rabbi later asked Rahamim, “Why did you bring that jar to the synagogue? What did you do with it?”
“Rabbi, I’m a poor, ignorant man,” Rahamim replied. “What I earn as a shoemaker barely feeds my many children. Every day they cry for bread and I have little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks, and I too cry. So I collect my tears in this jar.
When you asked me to come here to pray, I looked into the jar and said, ‘Master of the Universe, if you do not send rain, I will break this jar in front of the whole congregation.’
Then I heard a voice that said, “Ask again when you stand before the congregation. So I did and I heard a voice say: ‘Do not break the jar’.”
And then it began to rain.