Lamed Vavniks and Remembrance Sunday

This Sunday at the bandstand we began by sharing images and stories of individuals affected by the horrors of war and took a minute’s silence to remember.

The war in Ukraine, the economic crisis, climate change, the strains on the NHS, the problems of illegal migrants, the corruption in the police force, fake news and the polarisation of politics… the news is unremittingly grim and I am not alone in feeling pretty much helpless in being able to do anything of real significance to make anything better. Except…

In clearing out a load of books recently, I flicked through ‘The Ragman’ by Walter Wangerin for my eye to fall upon a short passage referring to his belief in the lamed vaniks. I had no idea what that meant and hurried away to find out more. From that came inspiration, encouragement and hope that I can make  a difference after all.

Lamed and vav are Hebrew letters that represent the numbers 30 and 6. In the Talmud, according to Hassidic tradition, there are, at any one time, at least 36 righteous people whose unremarkable but faithful lives effectively save the world from destruction. The idea has its roots in the story of Abraham interceding for the people of Sodom, asking God to spare them if there are 10 righteous people. Now I do not subscribe to a God of wrath who needs to be appeased by 36 good people to stop him obliterating us all, but I do believe in the notion of ‘ordinary’ people being conduits of the kingdom of God, creating ‘thin places’, altering history, unbeknownst to them or others. I found 3 readings for everyone to walk with and 3 questions to consider. Here they are:

Jewish thought:

The lamed vavniks are fonts of lovingkindness, pouring compassion on the world and using the gifts and talents they were given by God to raise up those around them.

“Without their acts of lovingkindness,” writes Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “life on this planet would implode under the weight of human selfishness, anger, ignorance and greed.” In his book, “The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness,” Rabbi Shapiro explains that cultivating the sacred art of lovingkindness is enrolling one’s self in the ranks of the lamed vavniks.

“The tipping point for maintaining human life on this planet is thirty-six people practicing the sacred art of lovingkindness at any given moment,” he writes. “These need not be the same thirty-six people at each moment, however. I believe that people step into and out of the lamed-vavnik role, and that at any given moment thirty-six people are stepping in.”

Rabbi Shapiro calls us to a similar mission and offers some sage advice. He writes, “Once you realize that the whole world depends on you for its very survival, you will not lack in opportunities to serve. Just remember that you are a hidden saint.

This is expressing the view that since nobody knows who the Lamed vavniks are, not even themselves, every Jew should act as if he or she might be one of them; i.e. lead a holy and humble life and pray for the sake of fellow human beings.

Christian thought:

For Catholics, Pope Francis reminds us that sainthood is a vocation for which we should all strive. In his Apostolic Exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World,” he writes of the saints “next door,” those members of our families and communities whose often- unrecognized holiness plays a part in our salvation as members of the People of God.

He writes, “Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity.”

Pope Francis reminds us that real history is made up by so many of them, quoting St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly, the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.”

Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

Secular thought:

The final words of George Eliot’s Middlemarch

And Dorothea, she had no dreams of being praised above other women.
Feeling that there was always something better which she might have done if she had only been better and known better, her full nature spent itself in deeds which left no great name on the earth, but the effect of her being on those around her was incalculable. For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts and on all those Dorotheas who live faithfully their hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.

Questions to ponder:

1.        Identify, remember and give thanks for those who have been lamed vavniks in your life. (People who have lived in a way that has made life better for the quality and modelling of their lives).

2.        How can we, or anyone, save the world from Climate Change / the innocent losing their lives, homeland, families, security in war-torn countries / the damage of conspiracy theories, fake news and politics of hate? Rob Bell suggests that the idea of quantum entanglement – where everything is connected and can influence other things, no matter the physical proximity – might apply to more than just quantum physics. Could it be that an act of loving kindness might affect others in the world unbeknownst to them? How might this encourage us to pray / act / speak differently, despite feeling that so much going on in the world right now is outside of our power and influence?

3.        How could you ‘enrol in the ranks of the lamed vavniks’ in one practical way this week?

Back at the bandstand after sharing our thoughts, we shared bread and wine for the world, for those know to us and those not known who need Jesus now. There is an invitation to be a member of the lamed vavniks. The way we live, what we say, what we pray, really can influence people far away and situations seemingly way beyond our control. Like Walter Wangerein – I believe it!