Luminous: Holding Up The World

Surely Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of them.

The Tzadikim Nistarim or Lamed Vavkniks (lamed-vavniks or Lamed Vovkniks, depending on your transliteration preference)—one of the 36 righteous souls who, according to Jewish mystical tradition and folk beliefs, carry the fate of the world on their shoulders.

They are the virtuous few who continue to embody altruism, lovingkindness, gentleness, and justice even when the rest of society has become so corrupt and distorted, it’s hard to imagine a time when things weren’t this awful and this dark.

Traditionally, Lamed Vavniks don’t know that they’re special, and neither do we. And if they were to understand their crucial role in the world, they would never admit it.

Still, to paraphrase the Coen brothers, sometimes there’s a woman … and she’s the woman for her place and time.

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Justice Ginsburg and the fingerprints she left on our world since her death on Sept. 18. She transitioned just as the Washington, D.C., sun was setting and the year 5780 on the Hebrew calendar became 5781, ushering in Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

In the hours after her death, Justice Ginsburg’s friend of many years, Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, tweeted a story that quickly went viral:

It’s a lovely idea (if not strictly “correct,” according to various rabbis and scholars), echoing the Tzadikim/Lamedvavs notion of a righteous few humans who spend their lives saving the rest of us from destruction (mostly of our own devising.)

In her eulogy Sept. 25 in the Capitol Rotunda, where Justice Ginsburg’s body lay in state—the first woman to be so honored*—Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt called the legendary jurist, “our prophet, our North Star, our strength for so very long.”

As mourners and historians reflected on Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I spent some time contemplating mine. Sept. 25 was also my 50th birthday. While the rabbi eulogized the good justice in the nation’s capital, I was sitting in my living room in California, reading, watching, and listening to memories and greetings sent by friends, family, colleagues, co-conspirators, and mentors around the world who have shaped the person I am at my dimidium saeculum.

I thought about how Rabbi Holtzblatt referred to Justice Ginsburg as the “North Star,” and the light she shone (and continues to shine) in the lives of millions of people she never met.

Lamed Vavniks carry the fate of the world on their backs (not unlike how the Titan god Atlas bore the sky aloft on his), while Earth’s axis perpetually points toward Polaris, aka “The North Star,” the brightest of seven that comprise the constellation Ursa Minor.

(I’ve recently begun watching the original Cosmos television series hosted by the late Carl Sagan that aired originally in 1980. The first of 13 episodes in the series, titled “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” debuted on Sept. 28, 1980, three days after I celebrated my 10th birthday. I fondly recall my darling father, who held a master of earth science among his collection of graduate and post-graduate degrees, watching a few of the early episodes and enthusiastically telling my brother and me about them before my mother, who had become a born-again Christian and discovered the “culture wars”a few months earlier, put the kibosh on it because the Southern Baptists responsible for her indoctrination had convinced her that evolution and faith were mutually exclusive. Revisiting Dr. Sagan and his journey through the known universe 40 years later is a small protest in my private revolution for the second half of life.)

But I digress. Back to Polaris and all things True North.

“During the course of the night, Polaris does not rise or set, but remains in very nearly the same spot above the northern horizon year-round while the other stars circle around it,” Joe Rao, a lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York wrote via Earth’s axis might wobble, but it still points toward Stella Polaris.

Polaris is also a Cepheid variable, meaning it’s a star that gets brighter and dimmer on a cycle. It pulses over the course of several days, although so subtly it’s barely discernible from our perspective 434 light years away from the source. And here’s something I didn’t know before reading Rao’s story: Scientists believe Polaris is 4.5 times brighter now than it was in ancient times. It’s grown measurably brighter just in the last 30 years. And, some day, as it dims and, over the centuries, Earth’s celestial pole shifts, Polaris won’t be Polaris anymore. In the year 14,000 AD, our descendants (if humankind and the Earth still exist, that is) might look up at the night sky, point to the star Vega, and dub it the “Northern Star.”

Light, of course, can be physical or metaphorical, just as stars can be celestial or human. Justice Ginsburg was a supernova. Her luminosity was so great that even though she’s no longer here, we can still see it, her legacy a kind of spiritual palinopsia.

"The righteous man departs, but his light remains."

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In RBG’s Jewish tradition, the idea of a righteous few saving the rest of us from utter destruction, was born from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew scriptures, when God promised to spare the troublesome twin cities from annihilation if Abraham (aka the Chosen Dude) could find 50 righteous souls living within their walls. When Abe has a hard time coming up with 50, he bargains with God to accept 45, then 30, then 20, and finally a measly 10.

When avenging angels can find only one righteous man—Abraham’s nephew Lot—God cues the sulfur rain, and the cities go up in flames. Lot is spared, but his wife, who looks back as they are fleeing, turns into a pillar of salt. The End. It’s not a great God-story, to be fair, but that’s where the Lamed Vavnik idea has its roots.

Judaism is not the only spiritual tradition in which a righteous few in some mystical sense assure humanity’s continued survival. In Islam, for instance, there is a tradition of Abdāl, sometimes called “hidden saints”—their numbers vary from 40 in Sunni and Shiite Islam to 356 in Sufi Islam—whose identity is known only to Allah and without whom the world would cease to exist.

In Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), in every generation there is said to be a Qutb (Arabic for “axis” or “pole”) a nearly-perfect human who is sanctified and serves as a kind of Captain of the Saints, but, whose identity, like the Lamed Vavniks, is unkown to the rest of the world.  

Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who forgo entering Nirvana to stay behind and help other humans in their journeys toward enlightenment. On their way to becoming Buddhas themselves, bodhisattvas are understood to evolve spiritually through 10 grounds (or bhūmi). The third ground is known as “Luminous,” during which time the bodhisattva cultivates patience and is said to radiate the “light of the dharma” (or the teachings of the Buddha) to others. In the fourth bhūmi, known as “Radiant,” a bodhisattva fosters vigor and is said to radiate an internal light that burns away anything that works against enlightenment.

“You are here, because, in the expanding ethical ambiguity of our situation, you are steadfast in your righteousness. It is to you, our banished friend, that we all turn—a light amid the dark dealings of family and politics. You are the moral backbone on which the rest of us hang our bloody bits. Without you we are merely wiggly masses of desire writhing in our own devious bile.”

—Christopher Moore, Fool

No matter the religious tradition, one of the enduring spiritual lessons about “hidden saints,” bodhisattvas, and Lamed Vavniks seems to be that we should treat everyone we meet as if they were one of the special few who keeps the world spinning on its axis. Another is that we may be a Tzadikim—or function as a guiding light in someone else’s life—and never realize it.

Taking stock of the people who helped keep the lights on in my life for the last half-century, in big and small ways, in ways I don’t even realize yet, they number far more than a few dozen. They’re more like a “thousand points of light,” but not in the jingoistic way George H.W. Bush used that phrase at the 1988 Republican National Convention to laud America’s many civic clubs and volunteer organizations.

I mean it in the way C.S. Lewis used it in his The Magician’s Nephew to describe the way stars appeared out of the darkness as Aslan created the Narnian world:

“One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leapt out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world."

In his book The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness, Rabbi Rami Shapiro says we all take turns playing the role of the Lamed Vavniks for each other, for the world. “I believe that people step into and out of the lamed-vavnik role, and that at any given moment 36 people are stepping in. Right now, at this very moment, there must be 36 acts of lovingkindness occurring on the planet, or the collective weight of human ignorance, fear, anger, and greed would crush humankind,” he wrote.

“But what about the next moment? Can you really afford to let your very existence and the existence of the entire world rest on the shoulders of others? Or should you consciously pitch in and take up the challenge of being a lamed-vavnik yourself? And, if you do choose to step in, can you afford to do so alone, or should you bring a few others along with you?”

There are two ways to spread amplify light, according to the novelist Edith Wharton: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Either way, you are the light of the world.

*After her death, in 2005, Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks’ remains “lain in honor” in the Capitol Rotunda, according to the Architect of the Capitol. The difference between lying “in state” and “in honor” is that the former is generally reserved for members of the military and government officials, such as Justice Ginsburg.