36 Reasons Why

“36 Reasons Why,” Susan Ryder

Once upon a time, there was a monastery on a mountain high above a small town in Italy. The monks were hard working souls who cultivated grapes and fruits of all sorts – they ate and slept very little and prayed nine times a day. For years, the fruits of their labors sustained them. They sold their grapes and fruits and used the income to replant and maintain themselves and their facility. But eventually, conditions changed. New young monks entered the monastery; the elders got sick or died. Lethargy, indecision, and changing leadership eroded confidence. Arguments drove wedges between the brothers. Conflict replaced cooperation – and soon the monastery was in trouble. Some of the monks left; others stayed but kept to themselves … isolated and solitary. Work was done poorly, if at all.

The abbot, fearing that the monastery might be shut down and the land sold, called upon an old friend, a rabbi from the nearby town, for advice. The rabbi came to the monastery to visit. After several days of observing, the rabbi asked the abbot if he could speak to all of the monks together. “My dear friends,” he began, “you are indeed in a perilous situation. There is little income, and I can see that you are demoralized. You just may have to close down this beautiful place and go elsewhere. There is one thing that I do know, however. In a vision I was given a very clear and distinct message. I was told that one of you is the messiah!”

A gasp and then a hush fell over the monks. A cool chill of heightened awareness spread from monk to monk as eyes darted about in search of who the special one might be. Could it be the abbot? But he had been here for decades and under his watch the place was falling apart. Yet, he had called upon the rabbi for advice, so … perhaps?! Could it possibly be the newest monk who came here from that monastery in Perugia, or maybe it’s the wine maker, or the novice, or the silent monk who makes the soup on Tuesdays and Fridays? Who could tell; who could say? Confronted by a quandary of such immense proportions, there was a certain transformative excitement about it all. One of us is the messiah, but who? And if it is one of us, then we must change our behavior toward one another … for who would ever want to insult or disparage or discount the messiah? Immediately, the brothers began to speak more kindly to one another. Respect, even honor was bestowed. Sharing and helping and taking turns became commonplace. Smiles erased frowns. The gardens and fields were filled with tillers and sowers, who worked with diligence as they pondered. Even the oft-bland foods seemed somehow tastier. There was humming, even singing, as the work hours flew by, and the prayers took on a vital rhythm not previously experienced.

The next season, the crops returned to full bloom, and word of a new spirit in the monastery filtered down to the townspeople and beyond. A few of them made their way up the winding road to see for themselves. Their reports brought more visitors and soon dozens of people were winding their way up the hill to see for themselves and, while there, to buy a jar of preserves and a bottle or two of wine … and some of those special candles and flowers … oh, yes, and that painting … and this finely woven material. Before long, new monks joined the brotherhood, and the monastery thrived, even more so than it had previously. And they all lived happily ever after!

Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels unaware.

Recently I got caught up with the Amazon Prime series, “Transparent.” For those of you not familiar with show, “Transparent” is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family, the Pfeffermans. Their patriarch, Morty, comes out as a transgender female, Maura, years after his three children are grown and he and his wife Shelly have divorced. The series deals with not only how the family handles Maura’s transition, but their own very human frailties and imperfections. It’s a beautiful, Emmy-award winning show and I highly recommend it. In a scene from season 3, the Pfefferman family and other members of the temple have gathered for a service to end the Sabbath. The Rabbi, a woman named Rachel, says:

“Welcome. Shabbat shalom. The rabbis tell us that there are 36 people whose righteousness sustains the world called the lamed-vavniks. So if you know your Torah, we know that God destroyed the world once, right? Noah and the Ark? Remember? So these 36 people are like an insurance policy against that ever happening again. So who are these 36 people? I want you guys to put your hand on the shoulder of the person next to you and get really close, so all of us can be linked in this circle? Is everybody close? Okay? Who are these 36? We don’t know. Even the 36 don’t know. So what is the lesson? The lesson is to treat each other as if we might be one. Or who knows? You might be standing next to one now.”

The notion of 36 righteous people has become popular in modern culture recently. “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World,” is a new ABC weekly series whose plot is built around them. Apparently it’s a story line the world needs to experience in these dark and dangerous times! I was unfamiliar with the story of the 36, and was so moved by the “Transparent” episode that I wanted to find out more about them. According to tradition, it is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed, which is 30, and the vav, which is six. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vavniks. And who, we might ask, are these righteous ones? According to the legend they are not saints; they are not holy people, they are not recognized by others or even known to themselves. They simply are what they are and in their very being, they somehow sustain the world. This Jewish concept is based on a Talmudic statement to the effect that in every generation 36 righteous “greet the Shechinah,” or the Divine Presence.

The number 36 has quite a bit of symbolism in Judaism. The Talmud says that at the very beginning of creation, God made a certain type of light that was so penetrating, so powerful, that it was only allowed to last for only 36 hours, after which God took it away and hid it for sometime in the future. According to the Zohar, that primordial light was the light of total understanding. The Talmud teaches that anytime the word “light” is used in the Torah or in a Rabbinic text it always means knowledge and wisdom and understanding. Naturally, the word light, ohr, occurs 36 times in the Torah. Additionally, the miracle of the Chanukah oil burning for eight days occurred 36 centuries after that all-powerful light on the first day of creation. The midrash asks where God hid that primordial light? Where else but in the lights of Chanukah? A Rabbi who was good with numbers noticed that exactly 36 candles are lit during the eight festival days of Chanukah: 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36. So Jews evoke a glimmer of that supernal enlightenment each time they kindle the 36 candles of Chanukah.

The moral of the tale of the monks I read earlier is obvious. When each of the monks in that monastery was treated as if they might be the messiah, the community flourished. Likewise, when we treat one another as if the possibility existed that you or you or you might just be one of the 36, our community, even our world flourishes. Imagine what would happen if everyone were to believe that someone in their family or neighborhood or workplace or school, or that person shopping near you at the grocery store or driving on the freeway, just might be a lamed-vavnik. No one would discount anyone else, or treat them as “less-than” – no one would marginalize, sexually harass, mock, deport, insult, attack, or discriminate against them. Just imagine what would happen if we treated each other with dignity and respect, just in case that other person might be one of the 36? And what might happen if we treated ourselves as if we might be one of them? Perhaps we might be less prone to self-criticize and negatively evaluate ourselves. For we would know that if we were one of the 36, the fate of the world rests upon our shoulders. Where we go, it goes; how we act shapes and influences the spheres. Our every little act of tolerance, kindness, patience, friendship … our every commitment, each positive emotion, even a smile, can change the world for the better.

There is a Netflix series called “13 Reasons Why” which revolves around a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, a girl who committed suicide after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances brought on by select individuals at her school. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her death details thirteen reasons why she ended her life. Each tape is addressed to a select person in her school and details their involvement in her eventual suicide. The title of my Reflection, “36 Reasons Why,” is a twist on that Netflix series. What if, instead of those 13 people somehow having had a part in Hannah’s decision to choose death over life, they had instead given her a reason to live? What if instead of taking her life, she was inspired to LIVE her life, and live it more fully because of the positive impact those 13 people had in her life? Or in this case, the 36 lamed-vavniks?

Yes, the stories of the monks and of the 36 righteous ones are just that – stories, legends, parables – but just because something isn’t factual doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And now more than ever we could use these stories and take them to heart. Imagine how different our country, our world, could be if we all treated one another, and ourselves, as if one of us just might be one of the lamed-vavnik? How might you act differently if you treated others as if they were one of the 36? How might you act differently if you treated yourself as if you were one of the 36? What would that look like? I know for me it would definitely mean experiencing and showing more patience in my life – my hair trigger impatience toward a slow driver does not serve me well, nor does it offer kindness or compassion. But if I can look at that person driving below the speed limit in front of me as one of the 36, perhaps I too will slow down and not let the anger inside of me boil up for what is really no good reason. And if I saw myself as possibly being one of the 36 – well, maybe I wouldn’t be so hard on myself about my perceived imperfections. How about the rest of you – how might you behave differently if you were to look at others, or even yourself, as being one of the 36 righteous ones?