Thursday, 30 October 2014

Lamed Vovnik

On a good year and when I was younger and my eyes were sharper I would read upwards of a hundred books a year. Older now I have slowed down. My eyes are not as sharp and it become more and more difficult to find really good books. What passes as literature these days seldom rises above the level of mediocrity.

For nearly 50 years now I have kept a mental list of the best books I have read. The top five are fixed while the next five tend to be fluid at least in positioning. At the top of that list for all those years has been Andre Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just and I could write my own book on the reading of it. This one book turned me into a life long fan of Hasidic literature. 

The Last of the Just traces the story of the Lamed-Vov, the Just Men, through 800 years of martyrdom, of horrific deaths at the hands of Jewish persecutors and culminates in the telling of the death of Ernie Levy, the last of the just men, in Auschwitz.

It is a heartbreaking work of terrible beauty.

I will allow a post I wrote some time ago serve as an introduction to The Last of the Just, the Just Men, and to Hasidic literature.


Hasidic literature is among the most beautiful literature in the world and no tale is more beautiful and heart-wrenching than the story of the Lamed-Vovnik, the Just Men. I first discovered the Lamed-Vovnik when I read Andre Schwarz-Bart's Prix Goncourt winning book, The Last of the Just in 1967.


 
I seldom read inspirational books but not long ago I happened to pick up Naomi Remen's national bestseller, My Grandfather's Blessing, and was delighted to see she offered her remembrance of first learning of the Just Men. Speaking of her grandfather she says:

"The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Issiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. In this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. These thirty-six are are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.

"Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?" I asked, certain that he would say "Yes." But he shook his head. "No, Neshume-le," he told me. "Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them."

It turned out that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and respond to the suffering around them. "And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world," my grandfather said. "It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so."

I sat and thought about this story for a long time. It was different than Noah's Ark. The rainbow meant that there would be a happily-ever-after, just as in the stories my father read to me at bedtime. But Grandpa's story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, I realized I had no idea what it was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then?" "How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to suffering, Grandpa?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "What do they have to do?" My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. "Ah Neshume-li," he told me. "They do not have to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world." "
 
In his El Libro de los Borges, Argentinean writer Juan Luis Borges tells the story like this.

"There are in the world, and have always been, 36 righteous men whose mission is to justify the world to God. They are very poor, and do not know one another. If one of them reaches the realization that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he dies immediately and is replaced by someone else, perhaps in another part of the world. They constitute the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, the Lord would annihilate the human race. They are our saviours and they know it not."
For nearly years I have considered The Last of the Just the best book I have ever read. Reading Naomi Remen's account took me back there to reread this incredible work. I read it in English, of course. I cannot imagine how beautiful Le dernier des Justes would have been in French. It doesn't matter the language though. I weep enough in English. Schwarz-Bart wrote:

"RIVERS OF BLOOD HAVE FLOWED, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.Thousands of popular stories take note of them. Their presence is attested to everywhere. A very old text of the Haggadah tells us that the most pitiable are the Lamed-Vov who remain unknown to themselves. For those the spectacle of the world is an unspeakable hell.

In the seventh century, Andalusian Jews venerated a rock shaped like a teardrop, which they believed to be the soul, petrified by suffering, of an 'unknown' Lamed-Vovnik. Other Lamed-Vov, like Hecuba shrieking at the death of her sons, are said to have been transformed into dogs.

When an unknown Just rises to Heaven, a Hasidic story goes, he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise. And it is known that some remain forever inconsolable at human woe, so that God Himself cannot warm them. So from time to time the Creator, blessed be His Name, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute."
I will leave you with another Hasidic tale as told by my favorite author, holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel.

"When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: "Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer." And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: "I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient." It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: "I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient." And it was sufficient. 
God made man because he loves stories. "
Keep telling your stories.

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