Rabbi Abraham Heschel, presenting Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend posted on Facebook, sharing the fatigue and demoralization she had been fighting as she sorted through old papers documenting her journey in the last few decades of the progressive movement in this country: the ideas appropriated without credit; the individuals whose own sense of entitlement blinded them to the injuries they inflicted; the surplus ego, the embedded pathways of patriarchy, and more, much more.

She touched my heart in the tender place of my own questioning, and I wrote back:

The challenge of remaining whole amidst the brokenness is formidable. The challenge of holding all these contradictions is fatiguing. It may not be much consolation to be seen as one who helps to shift the energies, inside and out, by speaking these truths, but you are such a one. There is a Jewish legend of the 36 just ones (the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim) who by their existence uphold the world. It is not given to anyone to know who they are, but we are asked to live as if life itself depended on us, as if we were among the 36. Love and honor to you for answering this call, my friend.

You see, her words brought to mind the legend of the 36 Just Ones – The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim in Hebrew – who by their righteousness uphold the existence of the world. In Jewish mysticism, the story goes that if at any time the total number of these pillars of existence were to fall below 36, the world would end, as together they constitute an ironclad argument to the Divine that humanity is worth the trouble.

In Yiddish vernacular, they are called the Lamedvavniks (the “Thirty-sixers” would be a rough equivalent), and they also have another Hebrew name: Tzadikim Nistarim, the “Hidden Righteous.” This is because their status among the 36 is secret, even from themselves. Any one of them may emerge into temporary visibility, taking a necessary role in mending the human world. But they immediately subside into an anonymity which expresses an essential quality of the 36, humility. If one proclaims him or herself among the Lamed-Vav, that is a sure sign of self-delusion.

My friend was moved to share her feelings as they emerged from a trip down her own memory lane, an experience I find relatable. How many times, how many ways, have I written or spoken about the same challenges we face today – different cast of characters, different details, but underneath it all, the same? I tell myself it is human to lift one’s head from the task, to look around and ask if it has all made a difference. That is a hard question to hold, because after all, who can know? Despite all the assurances – the sweet friends who sense how deep the questioning goes and hasten to say, Yes, it matters to me, you have made a difference for me – this is for many of us a moment in which the surreality of political life calls that question.

I have been reading snippets lately from people who, seeking light in a dark time, offer a particularly sobering form of reassurance, that many before us have lived through periods of dictatorship or fascism, fought for freedom, and emerged intact.There is some comfort in that being the worst-case scenario, as I believe it is. I do not believe that the puny excresence of broken ego currently impersonating national leadership has the power to plunge us into lasting darkness, extinguishing the fires of love and justice burning in so many hearts.

But more than anything, I believe this truth put so beautifully by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

This is the most important experience in the life of every human being, something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mystery waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.

There is plenty to do these days, of that I have no doubt.But for me, the questions my wise friend posted on Facebook – the deep desire to learn from our pasts and not simply to repeat them – are the necessary foundation for choosing what to do. I’ve been moved to look through some of my old writing too. In January 2010, I offered this in a talk to artists I gave in California:

We can’t predict how things will morph over the next decade or two. But because so much is unknown, if we come to the fore with energy and vision, our ideas can have influence. I don’t think there is one right answer to the inquiry we are undertaking. We need to engage many questions, generate many ideas, to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them. I hope to have dozens of mind-blowing conversations about these essential questions, to clear out all the cobwebs and the old answers, and with others as excited by these challenges as I am, to come at this task with fresh energy and vision.

That is still my hope.

What is needed now?Amidst all the doing I am holding space for deep listening. This is a time of opening all my senses to the voice of the demand, a time a time of willing myself ready to respond as I sense it. This line from the Song of Songs (8:13) goes through my mind: “‘O you who linger in the garden, a lover is listening; Let me hear your voice.’”

Another walk down memory lane: Van Morrison, “Into The Mystic.”


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