Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Not Quite Ripley’s: Hidden Righteous Ones

on July 16, 2014

When I think of legends, I think of King Arthur. I think of knights that could have been, men that might have been, and ideals that were certainly real enough to be tangible. Legends shape the world we live in today and linger on in traditions and rituals.

Our visiting rabbi talked about Jewish legends this past week, and he said you could believe it… or not. Up to you.

He focused specifically on legends surrounding Jewish wedding traditions. While many people are familiar with wedding traditions, we don’t always know why we do them. We have a modern interpretation attached to each symbol, but Louis Ginzberg offers us a world of demons in exchange for our own fanciful explanations. According to Ginzberg, Lilith plays quite a large role in our weddings. For those of you who have not heard of this demon woman, type her name into Google. You’re in for a treat.

Getting married under a chuppah? Breaking the glass? We claim that one symbolizes the home to be and the other represents the destruction of the temple and the sadness of the Jewish people. For Ginzberg? The chuppah is a circular, enclosed space to keep the demons out. A veil hides happiness from wicked ones, white  shrouds a living form and masks the true nature of the occasion… And a shattering glass wards off all lingering demons at the sidelines, allowing the married couple to make their quick exit.

We’ve abandoned these old myths for prettier stories. Even as I heard them, I thought to myself It’s just a legend. But isn’t there always a part of us, the small part enthralled by a ghost story, that wants to believe? We hold out hope for fictional characters because their emotion and their struggles are so very real to us.

It’s just a legend and you don’t have to believe anything.

But what if…

There’s always a what if.

There’s another legend in Judaism, one that our rabbi did not cover but I learned about recently, about the tzadikim nistarim, or hidden righteous ones. Some simply refer to them as the 36 men who will save the world.

They don’t “save the world” in a superman sense, but they represent the best of humanity, spare G-d’s wrath, and uphold righteousness. At any one time, there are 36 men living who care for the Earth, and as long as they are alive, G-d will not destroy the world.

And they don’t even know who they are.

A true lamed-vavnik (as they are sometimes called for the Hebrew letters that represent the number 36) is too humble to even consider that he may be one of these special men. If he becomes aware of his true identity, he either dies or the task passes on to someone else. No matter how ugly or cruel the world becomes, as long as these 36 men live, the world will be spared.

This concept of the few righteous sparing the entire world goes back as far as Abraham’s bargain with G-d for Sodom. If 10 people could be found in the city that were good, the Lord would spare everyone. Abraham won the argument but lost the city.

The morals of Abraham’s argument and this legend shape who we are. We never know when we might meet one of these men (or women) or if we might be one ourselves. So, we live AS IF we are one of the hidden righteous by being the best people we can be. Our actions perpetuate the teachings of the legend without necessarily admitting that we know 36 really awesome people who just happen to be keeping us alive. And did I mention? Legend says that one of these 36 men could become the Messiah.

So believe it or not, the lessons of legends impact how you live your life.

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