The Thirty-Six Just Men
There was once a young boy who lived alone with his grandfather. Every day the boy would wake and take care of their two goats, Rachel and Leah. One day the boy noticed that the goats no longer bounced around as much as when they were smaller. He mentioned this to his grandfather who nodded slowly and said, “Yes, they are growing older and someday they will die.”
“What does it mean to die, grandfather?” asked the boy.
The grandfather explained about life and death, birth and growth and how all things had their time on earth. We each had a lifetime, long or short, deep or wide – we each had a time that would one day come to an end at which time we would journey into the mysterious realms beyond life. Such was the fate of the boy’s parents, his grandfather explained.
The boy thought he understood and went back to tending the goats. As he sat in the sun watching the goats and shooing away flies he pondered what his grandfather had said. Suddenly a thought occurred to him and, in a panic, he ran into the house. “Grandfather, Grandfather, are you going to die?” the boy shouted as he ran.
The boy found his grandfather in the kitchen laughing. “Of course I will die,” he said gently. “We will all someday die. But I will not die just yet.” This calmed the boy and once again he returned to tending the goats.
That night the boy woke to strange sounds in the house. He followed the noise to its source where he was shocked to see his grandfather sitting at the table in the middle of the kitchen which was a chaos of swirling pots, pans, dishes. Every object in the kitchen save the table and chairs was flying crazily about the room. The boy was afraid and managed to dodge his way to his grandfather’s side. There, in the centre, all was calm. “What is happening, grandfather,” the boy asked.
“One of the Thirty-Six Just Men has died,” the grandfather said.
“Who are they?” the boy asked.
“Once, long ago,” the grandfather explained, “after God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He made a promise not to do it again as long as there were thirty-six just men alive on earth. You see, at any one time there live amongst us thirty-six just men and these people carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They live anonymously and commit acts of kindness and compassion. Some say that even they do not know who they are. And now one of them has died and, until a new one comes forth, the world is out of balance. Now, off to bed with you. All will be well soon enough.”
“Are you one of the Just Men, grandfather,” asked the boy.
“No, I am not. Now, to bed with you.”The next day the boy was sitting on the doorstep watching over the goats when a fly came buzzing near. And, as little boys often do, he caught the fly in his hand. He held it tightly and could hear its buzzing. He shook it beside his ear. But suddenly the buzzing changed. The boy could hear the panic and fear of the fly. He let it go. But it was too late. In that moment, the fear of the fly cracked open the boy’s heart. And into that heart poured all the suffering and sorrow and loss of the world. And in that moment that boy became the new thirty-sixth Just Man.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Ethics for Activists - 9
I learned the following story from fellow storyteller Alec Gelcer with whom i shared a love of Jewish (as well as many other traditions) wisdom tales. I'm particularly fond of the legends of the Lamed Vov Tzadikkim - the 36 Just Men or 36 Just Sages, kindly souls who commit acts of anonymous kindness throughout their lives. I've heard two versions of these stories: one has it that these kindly souls are anonymous their entire lives but they know that they are of this unique three dozen; the other version says that these souls are unaware that they are of this group - which means that any one of us could be one of these kindly souls. I also like to think that in the 21st Century this 36 includes women.