The Thirty-Six Are Hidden, from Legend

The Thirty Six are Hidden

“There are not less than 36 tzaddikim [righteous persons] in the world who receive the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence]” – B.T. Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b

The notion of the thirty six righteous ones appears in the Talmud, the oral tradition of Judaism, as a teaching of one of the early Babylonian rabbis, Abbaye. In Abbaye’s teaching, the world required a minimum of thirty six righteous individuals in order to exist. The idea may have been suggested by the famous story in the Bible of Sodom, in which Abraham argued with God to save the wicked city (Genesis, chapter 18). God agreed, if ten righteous individuals could be found there. Abraham won the argument but lost the fight; Sodom was destroyed, seemingly because the minimum, ten righteous individuals, could not be found.

That’s the shadow side of the story of the thirty six: it’s a minimum, and sometimes the world may not contain thirty six righteous individuals.

In later Kabbalistic folklore, the thirty six hidden ones have the potential to save the world, they appear when they are needed, and one of them might be the Messiah. They come at times of great peril called out of their anonymity and humility by the necessity to save the world. Because they can, and because we need them.

We began to get familiar with them, referring to them in Yiddish as the “lamed-vov-niks” (lamed vov is Hebrew for thirty six), and seeing them everywhere in the anonymous acts of good people who rise to great acts in difficult circumstances. And because one of the lamed-vov-niks, one of the anonymous thirty six might be the Messiah, we tended to treat strangers with kindness and the possibility that he or she could be the one.

It could be the person we least suspect, because the thirty six, like all the sustaining notions of the world in the Kabbalah, are hidden. They may appear, they may not appear. In each generation, we look for them everywhere.

The Thirty Six are Hidden

“There are not less than 36 righteous persons in the world who receive the Divine Presence” – B.T. Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b

They may come to the door they may not
They may sit alone outside of the ball park
Selling pencils
They may not speak until spoken to,

They may not know who they are
They may not emerge
Until they are needed,

We need them now.

In one generation
Everyone knew it.

Every once in a while
Since, in a story
Told about one of the anonymous
Thirty six,
Alive or dead
The spirit of the thirty six returned

And the world was sustained.

As if the world deserved its thirty six
As if the world earned its hiddenness
As if the world deserved to be saved,

As if it only takes thirty six,

As if there may come a generation,
Or there was,
In which there was not.

What I was trying to make sense through this entire chapter of the story was the relation between the legend of the thirty six, the notion of teshuvah, the existence of the world, Lillian, Todd, myself, and the telling of the tale.

What brought me to this was the argument in the Talmud between the two Babylonians, Rav and Shmuel: was teshuvah necessary to the redemption of the world, or was it enough to mourn, to stand in our hurt so to speak?

To my surprise, perhaps I knew but I had forgotten, the legend of the thirty six precedes, just precedes, the argument of Rav and Shmuel. In my mind, I went searching for two entirely different subjects in the Talmud and they were placed next to one another. It was so unlikely. Maybe I had known, but if I did, I had forgotten. I was completely surprised by what I found as I dove into the text. I went swimming in the sea of the Talmud and bumped into someone I knew. I learned, again, that for Shmuel, suffering is enough for redemption.

About the thirty six, about teshuvah, neither of them will save the world. Not the thirty six, because it’s a minimum of thirty six according to the Talmud, the implication being that there may come a generation, there may have been, in which there are not thirty six. I started to weep, the thought of a world without thirty six was inexorably sad to me.

I knew, in my blood in my bones, that I had been born into a generation in which there were not thirty six. I knew this from the stories that my parents hid from me. I wept over the Talmud the day I read the text, three days prior to the holiday.

There was a letter in the newspaper quoting a great light of a previous generation. When asked why the holocaust, the precious Rebbe put his head down on his desk and cried.

Teshuvah, too, will not save us. I understood, like Shmuel, that the world will not be saved by this, by that, and what to do is to be in your suffering. Those are actually the words from the Talmud: to stand with your mourning. It sounds so contemporary.

I don’t know how the world is to be saved, unless it is to repair it with tears. To weep the world well.

I met a painter in Italy who occasionally told us stories that were tender. Of the tender stories, there was a softness, sometimes even weeping in his eyes when he told them.

I was talking with J. on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of teshuvah transformation between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He was telling me about a friend of his son who had died in a car accident. “My heart hurts,” J. said, “I can’t stop crying.”

“You’re saving the world,” I said, “you’re saving the world with your tears.”

It was the weeping of course that attracted me to these stories. When I returned home, I began to wonder why if I told such a story, where were my tears? Then, two months after my return, while playing music with one of my friends, I began to weep, quietly and inwardly.

I realized, too, that the weeping was the center of the story in the Talmud, and the connection between the legend of the thirty six and teshuvah. The world would not be saved in the common, obvious ways; it may not be saved even by the righteous, there may be too few of them, nor by the sincere acts of repentance. It would only be saved by our tears.

jsg, usa