I love this article by Cantor Chabon of B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. Have you ever heard of ‘lamed vavniks’? No? Read on.
A couple of weeks ago, Steve and I took our boys on a family trip to Portland for a few days. We rarely have free weekends to travel together because of Shabbat, so we were really excited for this little adventure. Plus, we were visiting Steve’s family, so we had the added bonus of time with uncles and grandparents to look forward to.
It didn’t take long for us to remember that traveling with three boys under ten is most definitely a trip, not a vacation. While we had some nice moments that made the trip enjoyable, there were many more moments of exhaustion and frustration and just plain herding of children from one place to the next. We were quite happy to get back on the plane to return home when the time came.
As we were waiting at the gate, I saw a mom with three girls standing in line to board the plane in front of us. She was very cheerful, talking to other people in line, introducing her girls to them. Her youngest daughter looked to be about eight years old. The mom was explaining that they were on their way to southern California to go to Universal Studios. She wanted to do anything to bring joy to her littlest girl’s life. It was only then that I really looked at the girl and realized that under her cozy green hat was a bald head with a large scar peeking out above her eyebrow. Pain and compassion flooded my heart.
We happened to sit across from this family on the plane and the little girl ended up next to a woman she didn’t know. No matter. She took off her hat and started chatting away with this stranger, entertaining her and engaging her in lively conversation. When we landed, the woman turned to the little girl and said that it had been her great fortune to sit next to her and meet her that day. More pain and compassion, but also joy.
As we muscled our way through the airport towards the exit, the mom and I exchanged some mom-glances meant to say, “Ack, this traveling with kids thing is for the birds!” She commented on how cute my boys are and I did the same about her girls, just as you would with any parent in passing who could use an encouraging word along the way. Except that this mom was not just any parent. She was a remarkable stranger who crossed my path and taught me something valuable that day.
One of our most famous mystical Jewish teachings is that at all times there exist 36 righteous people in the world whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God. Jewish tradition holds that their identities are unknown to each other and that, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are lamed, which is 30, and vav, which is 6. These 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim, the 36 righteous people.
It happens occasionally that I meet someone who reminds me that I believe in those lamed vavniks, that there are special souls who walk this earth to remind us of the spark of God within each person. The thing about the lamed vavniks is that you never know who they are, so they could be anyone you meet. Any passing stranger could have something to teach you. That beautiful family in the airport reminded me not only to be appreciative of my exhausting boys, but even more so, to remember that we have the opportunity every day to choose how to react to life. I’m sure that mom has plenty of days where she cannot approach her challenges with a smile, but on that day, she was a reminder of the power of grace, even when life throws you something incredibly difficult.
The longer I am a cantor, the more I see God not only within the walls of the sanctuary, but sometimes even more so out in the world as I move through my days. As we all travel this summer and find ourselves perhaps away from CBT more than usual, I wish us all clear eyes to see God within the people we meet, and maybe, if we’re lucky, a glimpse of one of the righteous 36.