The fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology today are enlarged by the wisdom of the world’s great spiritual traditions. In this light, one of the oldest and most profound Jewish legends is that of the 36 hidden just persons, known in Yiddish as the Lamed-vovniks (lamed-vov means “thirty-six” in Hebrew). Tradition has taught that in every generation, humanity is sustained by these secret saints who engage quietly yet powerfully in acts of kindness, compassion, and altruism.
As the Talmud records the evocative words of the fourth-century Babylonian Jew, Abaye, these exalted personages “daily receive the Divine Countenance.” During the 1960s, Abraham Maslow was quite moved by this legend and compared it to the similar Buddhist notion of the bodhisattvas—enlightened human beings who renounce their entry into paradise in order to help the rest of us—still struggling to growth spiritually here on earth.
Though Maslow was conversationally competent in Yiddish, as recalled by his colleague Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, Maslow most likely learned of the Lamed-vovnik tradition through Martin Buber’s literary-philosophical works rather than through Hebraic or Yiddish books. It is also plausible that Andre Schwarz-Bart’s evocative, bestselling 1959 French novel, The Last of the Just—based on this classic theme—reached Maslow in its subsequent English translation. In some intriguing tales that have come down through the centuries, it is told that each of these holy figures knows the identity of all the others. In this way, they form a hidden network—a cabal—that spans the continents. In other stories, it is said that no member is even aware of his/her own supernal role, let alone that of his/her peers. But common to all variants of the legend is the notion that these mighty saints are outwardly quite ordinary, engaged in the most mundane occupations—a cobbler, a water-carrier, a teacher of small children. Yet, the simplest act of the Lamed-Vovnik is seen to exert incalculable effects on others. The underlying Kabbalistic notion is that compassionate deeds performed with intense kavana—one-pointedness of concentration and intentionalty—harbor tremendous positive energy.
For instance, it is said that a certain village tanner in the early Hasidic era was a Lamed-vovnik: after his death, this seemingly ignorant man was discovered to have composed secret and erudite Kabbalistic treatises. Two apparently uneducated laborers in another tiny East European village were likewise found after their deaths to have written—unbeknownst to their neighbors—sophisticated metaphysical texts that only the most learned persons could comprehend. Released from the conceit that accompanies fame, such exalted personages are in this way able to carry out most effectively their sacred mission.
Perhaps you have already encountered some or even all of these 36 “hidden just persons.” Possibly, you have even suspected that an individual whom you met was far more than he or she appeared to be at the time.
In this guided activity, think back over the course of your life and identify those people who, through the kindness, simplicity, and quiet serenity displayed to you—and others—may have been secret Lamed-vovniks. Focus on the present circumstances and look for possibilities. Remember that flamboyance has never been their style. You may therefore have to stimulate your memory and awareness a bit. You may not be able to list all 36—yet—but name as many as you can.
You may also wish to assume that, at all times, there is at least one Lamed-vovnik secretly operating in your life. If so, who is he or she right now?
— Edward Hoffman