I was heading to the break room to grab a cup of coffee when I passed by the collection box for the school supply drive my department conducts every summer. It was empty, which was concerning because we were giving the supplies away in two weeks.
Feeling a ripple of anxiety, I had a vision of turning away needy children because we didn’t have any backpacks, lunch bags, notebooks, pens, pencils, crayons, or markers to give them. Then I chided myself for my lack of faith. After eight years doing this work, I knew the stuff would come from somewhere – but that never stops me from getting nervous. Then, after resupplying myself with java, I trudged back upstairs to my desk, looked at my to-do list, and started working the phones.
“Bill,” I said, after he picked up, “Can you do me a favor?”
“I’ve got an elderly couple on Anywhere Ave who can’t keep up with their property. We’ve been getting complaints from their neighbors. They’ve got a daughter living with them and she used to mow the lawn, but their mower’s busted and they can’t afford to fix it.”
“Okay,” Bill said, “I’ll swing by today.”
Hanging up, my next call was to the repairman who fixed my lawnmower after I ran over a large rock. After explaining the situation with the elderly couple, I asked, “Can you fix their mower? I can pay you out of my funds.”
“I’ll go get it tomorrow,” he said.
“Just send me the bill.”
“No charge. Consider it my giving back to the community.”
“It could be an expensive repair,” I said. “The mower’s from the 70’s.”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
After thanking the man, I continued to go down my list – a client needing help with her electric bill, another who couldn’t make the rent, a family facing eviction from their apartment with no money to put a security deposit on another, a guy who needed an air conditioner. and a homeless person living under the highway. After some more phone calls and fiddling with my computer, I paid the electric bills and back rent, bought an air-conditioner, arranged for the homeless man to be taken to a shelter and then called the family facing eviction. They had three kids and were understandably nervous. After reassuring them I could help, I ended the call.
Feeling drained, I sat back in my chair and looked at the elementary school outside my window. Sitting empty, it looked forlorn, as if pining for its young students to return, making me feel that ripple of anxiety again. Then my phone rang.
“Hey babe. It’s Barbara.”
“Hi Barb,” I said, grinning.. She always calls me “babe.”
“You still need stuff for your school supply drive?”
“Yes, I do.’
“I’m gonna drop off sixty backpacks my women’s group collected. You gonna be in tomorrow?” And, just like that, half the backpacks I needed fell into my lap. It’ll come from somewhere. Smiling, I thought about the Tzadikim Nistarim.
There is a legend in Jewish mysticism that there are always thirty-six righteous people in the world who, through their kindness and good deeds, keep God from destroying the world. Called the Tzadikim Nistarim or the Lamed-Vavnik, these people are hidden from the world, unknown to everyone else and each other. Even a Lamed-Vavnik doesn’t know he or she is a Lamed-Vavnik and, when one of their number dies, they are replaced by another. As the legend goes, God keep the world going solely for their sake but, if even one of them falls into sin, then it’s game over. Probably a good thing they don’t know their Lamed-Vavnik. That’d be too much pressure.
There is a contemporary take on the Tzadikim Nistarim, however, that I like much better. According to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, the Lamed-Vavnik are “fonts of lovingkindness, pouring compassion on the world and using the gifts and talents they were given by God to raise up those around them,” and “Without their acts of lovingkindness, life on this planet would implode under the weight of human selfishness, anger, ignorance, and greed.” But, in his take on the Tzadikim Nistarim, they don’t have to be the same thirty six people. “I believe that people step into and out of the lamed-vavnik role,” he said. “And that at any given moment thirty-six people are stepping in.”
Everything I’m able to accomplish at the food pantry is directly the result of people acting as ‘fonts of loving kindness.” Whether it’s Bill doing free landscaping, that repairman fixing a lawnmower, Barbara giving me backpacks, or the people who donated money so I could help clients with rent, air conditioners or energy bills, it all came from individuals acting selflessly. Being human beings, none of these people are perfect, but I like to think that, for a moment, they all stepped into that Lamed-Vavnik role.
When Covid-19 struck the people in my town banded together to deliver food and medical supplies to the vulnerable elderly – an example of people acting beautifully. And how could I do my job if not for the countless volunteers who help me? They’ve all been Tzadikim Nistarim at one point or another. And this list of Lamed Vavniks goes on and on; the couple who donated thousands of dollars worth of gift cards to help my clients at Christmas, the lady who delivers supplies to my pantry almost every week, the schools and kids who run food drives, the church that gave me money to house families in crisis, the Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis, Scouts, Women’s Clubs, and mommy groups who’ve pitched in to help and, of course, all those who’ve donated money and food.
Getting up from my desk, I pulled a binder off the shelf containing the hundreds of thank you notes I’ve written during my tenure. Leafing through it, my fingers traced over the people who’ve donated $10, $20, $100, or $400 to my pantry every month for years. Or how about The Thrift Barn in town who, as the result of their hardworking volunteers, manages to gift us tens of thousands of bucks’ year in and year out? The kid who forsook presents on his birthday and asked for donations to my pantry instead? The memorial gifts for deceased family and friends? The two people who donate almost a hundred turkeys every Thanksgiving? The American Legion guys who helped an old veteran? My friend who gives me Visa cards all the time? They, and all the countless people I’ve neglected to mention are Tzadikim Nistarim all. And they don’t even know it.
There are days when this job is a drag. On one particularly bad day I groused to a co-worker that I should just chuck it all and sell cars. Burnout always threatens but, as I held that binder, I knew the thing that keeps me going is the privileged perch I occupy – watching as countless angels flare into existence time and time again. Like the Lamed Vavnik, they don’t have to be the same people all the time and, when one person can’t perform the role, another just picks it up; exchanging places like a heavenly game of musical chairs. Something tells me, however, that there are far more than thirty-six righteous people in the world, and that God’s wrath will be forever stayed.
Closing the binder, I brought it to my lips and kissed it as if it were The Gospels which, in a sense, it was.