Each year I choose a central theme for my High Holy Day / Days of Awe messages.
The theme is woven into my sermons, remarks, Cantor Abbe's choice of songs, and even what I call our "holiday swag," of things you get to take home to remind you of the message.
Past themes have included:
This year, my holiday theme is "Lamed Vavniks: The Hidden Power of Righteouness." In case you haven't heard the term, don't worry; it's simple. Lamed and Vav are the two Hebrew letters whose numerical value is 36. There is an ancient legend of 36 hidden tzaddikim (saintly, righteous people) whose merits uphold the world. Sounds quaint and naive, but I think that this venerable tradition has a deep contemporary meaning for our globally interconnected world, a world where we too often assume that our small, private deeds have no impact. Over the next ten days, I plan to speak and teach and discuss with you how this tradition might inspire us to feel more empowered and humble at the same time.
Have you met some someone whose character and deeds were so exemplary that just being around them raised you to a higher level, made you want to do a little better? Hopefully we all know at least one or two people who seem to be living their entire lives on a different plane. Hopefully we can think, too, of someone whose words or actions, however small, made a great difference to our lives. These are our lamed-vavniks.
Our tradition is full of legends about "lamed-vavniks," the humble, hidden saints who secretly sustain the entire world. We first hear of it explicitly in the Talmud [Bavli Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], where the sage Abbaye is quoted as saying, “The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day,” (the Shekhinah meaning God’s presence in the world). His proof text is from the biblical book of Isaiah 30:18, Ashrei kol hokei lo, “Happy are all those that wait for Him.” (The word “for Him” in Hebrew, Lo, spelled lamed-vav, equals 36 in gematria.) The number thirty six itself is symbolic, meaning twice the value of “Chai” or life (18 in Hebrew numerology).
How do the Lamed Vavniks keep the world going? Some say by the practice of compassion. As Dr. Naomi Remen's relates in her popular book, My Grandfather's Blessing, her grandfather told her as a child: “Anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world…It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so… [The Lamed-Vavniks] respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”
Traditionally, the lamed vavniks were seen as so humble that they didn't even know who they were! It used to be the pinnacle of chutzpah to consider oneself a lamed vavnik. But with the state of the world today, I think that we have to take another approach. We should look to the models of those we know who live those extra-righteous lives, and try to take one step in their direction, knowing that we will never know the ultimate repercussions of a single deed. In order to heal our planet, we need to do more than advance our technology. We need to develop our character, our compassion, our hearts and souls. We need to reach for “double high,” to live our lives at a higher level.
I look forward to learning, praying, and discussing with you over these holidays, and finding our "inner lamed vavnik!"
Wishing you L'shanah Tovah--may we all be blessed for a good and sweet year, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.