Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.


The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.

11 thoughts on “Thirty-six Righteous People

  1. Indeed, life is hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful and heartfelt, Dr. Stein. Not your usual kind of post, but very much needed in these times ❤

    Not being Jewish, I've never heard of the Lamedvavniks. Why only 36 righteous souls is quite intriguing. Maybe the number has some importance in Jewish tradition. The small number suggests that it just takes a few to spread light and illuminate the darkness among the vast majority of fallen humanity. I suspect that an examination of the historical record of humanity would reveal that, indeed, only a small number of individuals have moved us forward over time into the light.

    Another interesting part of this tale is that, once revealed, the Lamedvavnik soon dies. Why? They become a threat to those in power. Two such souls of our time come to mind: Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Rosaliene. I didn’t know about these 36 either, but came upon the group in a recent story about world affairs in the NY Times.

      My knowledge of the New Testament is about as great or small as my knowledge of the Old. I was raised in a secular, ethnically Jewish home, with little religious training. There is an explanation for the number 36, though like the entire concept, no one is certain of how it came to be.

      As to the anonymity of each person, without knowledge even of his own participation in this group — I suspect it is to make those of us who aren’t MLK or Gandhi realize that the world survives because of the actions of we who are far less imposing in our place on the world stage. Put another way, each of us should act as if the presence of goodness in the world depends on our actions.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Gerald, I think we might agree that this period of time is the most dangerous period in our lifetime. It is reminiscent of the 1930’s when the world also experienced a spasm of destruction and insanity. Maybe the parable of the 36 righteous men has less to do with the righteous and has more to say about the subterranean, destructive instincts and drives that are always present and always an existential threat. Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. drgeraldstein

    Agreed as to the time in our lives and places, Harvey. We were born in a golden moment for two kids from middle class, white families; though not golden for people of color. Still, I get your point and feel the truth of it at a personal level. Agree, as well, that the dark side is always present. The kids in cages quietly indict with a question for each of us, “What will I do?”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Righteousness and spiritual restoration may not always be kind, especially when considering God’s stance for Justice, which is mentioned as a theme throughout some books in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah. However, what exactly did/do these 36 do? Humble and blind to their own good works, they are “ordinary,” which suggests health and balance on many levels. They appear to be chosen by God, as when one dies or becomes known, another rises to take his (or her?) place.

    This is the first time I have ever heard about the 36. Their influence on others, at least those who are willing to receive, appears to affect the behaviors of non-36ers. What actions and behaviors restore righteousness? Are they always kind, or are they blunt speakers of truth?

    In the Christian tradition, justice and righteousness include righteous anger, and perhaps even defiance. For instance, Jesus turned over tables and, as a 12-year-old, left his parents to go to the Synagogue.

    I wonder if the 36 unknowingly do the right thing, even though it may not seem like it. And, since they are described as ordinary and humble, it would appear that they are neither grandiose nor narcissistic. Perhaps we can learn the good and righteous things in life by seeing examples of those who are low on narcissistic traits, or those who have learned to regulate them. Perhaps righteousness includes instruction, reprimand, and redirection, as opposed to sole kindness.

    I am sure that there are many examples in the Holy Scriptures where God was described as being righteous through his concern, rebuke, and actions.

    To me, it would include both kindness and correction, truth and concern. It would be like not enabling someone to harming themselves or others, or not enabling others to influence unrighteousness. It is not tough love, but rather a showing and not just telling – an act that prodices enlightenment in others to correct their ways and do the right thing.

    But my opinions aside, it remains a mystery as to the precise behaviors and dispositions of the 36 at any given time.


    • My vantage point comes from experiencing narcissistic abuse. Those who are truly righteous are not narcissistic. There are different types of narcissists that exact different behaviors and abuse onto their victims. God corrects us because He loves us and does not want us hurting ourselves or others. Some communal narcissists correct because they want


      • Some communal narcissists correct because they want to reveal how special and right they are, therefore feefing their narcissistic supply. The 36 are humble and ordinary, which is to say that their intentions and actions do not come from a place of needing narcissistic supply. For the moment that they do or even recognize this, they will soon be replaced by another who is not acting on narcissistic terms. Therefore, God understands what harms are done when people act in a narcissistic way toward others. Sympathy is not the same as empathy, and helping others to benefit is not the same as helping others without a need for reward or reciprocation (though one could feel happy for the other).

        Narcissism is widespread and pervasive. God loves us enough to see that toxic narcissism is harmful to both victims and offenders.


      • I hope you are right, GLB. The older I get and the more I look around at contemporary events in countries thought to be the most civilized, the more I recognize how imperfect we all are, though some are way over the line.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I do not have the answers, but like the idea of all of us, as individuals, taking responsibilities for saving the world. Consult the God or Gods (remember Zeus and Co.) for more answers!

      Liked by 1 person

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