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 Rachel no longer bounced around and walked much slower than she used. He mentioned this to his grandfather who nodded slowly and said, “Yes, Rachel is an old goat and sometime in the months or year ahead she 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.
One night not long after speaking with his grandfather about death and dying, 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 surrounded by 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 children 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 righteous soul.
I learned this story from Alec Gelcer with whom I shared a loved of stories of the Hassidim as well as Jewish wisdom stories more generally. Since learning this story i have had an intense curiosity about this legend. But the stories of these people are few and far between. Nonetheless, i have found many pieces to this legend. Called the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (meaning 36 righteous souls) or Tzadikim Nistarim (meaning hidden righteous ones) they are also referred to as lamedvavniks (applying the yiddish diminutive). I assume that the sexism in calling them 36 Just "Men" comes of the patriarchal history that all the major world religions share. And i use the term in this story given that that is how i learned it from Alec. Nonetheless, i changed the title of the story to reflect a more just rendering of this legend. In all the stories i've found there is nothing to suggest that a woman couldn't also be one of these righteous souls. An intriguing part of this legend is whether or not these lamedvavniks are aware that they are such. Some stories say that they do not know and that while they feel all the suffering of the world they do not know why. Other stories say they do know and that they spend their lives committing anonymous acts of kindness. All the stories agree that these people are hidden and never known (at least during their life) that they are one of the "36 Pillars" of the world on whose shoulders exist the continuation of the world. As i've mentioned before (in the Ten Just Men story), i am also intrigued by the number 36. Why 36? For it is not just any number but is one of a set of numbers that recur in stories from many different cultures. It is part of precessional mathematics which is the math of the earth's 26,000 year wobble - something that we know that ancient cultures had observed, calculated, and encoded into their stories. The suggestion in the story of the world being "out of balance" should one of these 36 hidden saints be no more is a fascinating recapitulation of this math. For, indeed, should there be a change in this numerical value it would imply that the earth's wobble and spin had changed and, truly, things would be "out of balance."
But, math aside, we do, indeed, live in a world out of balance. And the sorrow and loss that afflict us daily, is more than enough to overflow many souls open to that suffering. Our need for kindness in this world has never been greater as so much of daily life pushes people to hate and violence. May our souls always be open to the suffering of others so that we may know better how to practice love and compassion.