Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Lamedvuvnik Life



Great men do great things. Thomas Carlyle argued for the “Great Man” theory of history, that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men". Others debate this idea, and see the great leaders of history as merely a product of their society; as Herbert Spencer says about the Great Man: “before he can re-make his society, his society must make him.”

Looking back at the last century, a strong case can be made for the‘“Great Man theory”. (note: the phrase “Great Man” is not meant as a reference to character, but rather to the person’s impact). Milton Himmelfarb wrote an eloquent essay entitled “No, Hitler, No Holocaust”, in which he explains that “Anti-Semitism was a necessary condition for the Holocaust, but it was not a sufficient condition. Hitler was needed.” Himmelfarb’s point is indisputable; the horrors of the Holocaust are inconceivable without Hitler. Larger than life individuals play a unique role in determining the course of history.

Great Man theory is a staple of the Tanach’s narrative. The Tanach focuses a great deal on heroes such Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David; to this day, Jewish liturgy mentions these transformative leaders more than anyone else. For much of the Tanach, a central character takes  the stage and directs the course of action, and the Great Man is the organizing principle of much of the Biblical narrative.

For Jews, Great Man theory plays a significant role in our lives. It’s more than our theory of history; greatness is also our highest aspiration. Maimonides (Deot 3:3) makes a telling remark about childrearing when he says:

וישים על לבו שיהיה לו בן אולי יהיה חכם וגדול בישראל

“You should consider that you may have a child who will be a wise and great man in Israel”

This is the Great Man theory of child rearing. Our expectations for ourselves and our children are geared to greatness. The comedian David Bader highlights this reality in a short Haiku entitled the “Jewish mother’s lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?”


Jews live the great man theory of history.

This is why Noach is so significant a character. There is no question that Noach is a “good” man, not a great one; he is righteous for his generation of wickedness, but not truly exceptional. Even so, he is good enough to save the world. Noach, like Ruth, Esther and several other characters in Tanach, makes a great impact by being a good person.

Noach’s low profile heroism is reminiscent of the fascinating Chassidic tradition about the “lamedvuvniks”. The lamedvuvnik is one of the 36 hidden righteous men upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. They appear like ordinary men, live ordinary lives, yet they do extraordinary things; in undertaking an important act of piety or charity, these otherwise ordinary Joes save the world. Gershon Scholem has noted that this idea of hidden tzaddikim has some basis in the Talmud, particularly in one passage in Sukkah (45b), but that the primary source of this tradition is in Chassidic thought.

There is an irony that the Chassidic movement, which is oriented around the Tzaddik, (a divine intermediary who is the ultimate Great Man), promotes traditions about the simple looking lamedvuvnik.  But perhaps that is the point: even when recognizing great heroes, the quiet contributions of everyday heroes should never be forgotten. The beauty of the lamedvuvnik tradition is that anyone might be great, even the common man; and who knows, maybe the gruff, grizzled and wrinkled water carrier is holding the fate of the entire world on his shoulders. The lamedvuvnik offers us an alternative paradigm of greatness: a good man quietly doing good things, off on the periphery and away from the limelight.

This lamedvuvnik lesson is more relevant in the 21st century than it was for 18th century Chassidim. We live in a generation that obsesses with greatness. Jean Twenge, who has studied contemporary narcissism, writes in her book Generation Me: “In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.”. Everybody expects to be great and famous, and that makes it difficult for people to be content with living ordinary good lives.

Parents feel this strain in particular, when being pulled between their career and their children. Anne Marie Slaughter wrote Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family to respond to authors who argued that with a bit of planning, working mothers can have it all. Slaughter passionately responds: they can’t. Thankfully, the lesson of the 36 hidden tzaddikim is you don’t need to have it all, and you don’t need to be great to be great.

The lamedvuvnik life offers opportunity for understated greatness, to change the world one person at a time. George Elliot expresses this idea beautifully when she writes at the end of Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life: "The growing good of the world is…..half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

In the course of my career, I have met many great people; but I have been inspired the most by the lamedvuvniks I have met.

In my previous congregation, we had a congregant named Harold. He was the “candyman” who gave candy to the children in synagogue, and the greeter who helped people find their seats. At his funeral (which was filled to capacity), I said the following in his eulogy:

“But what was it about Harold that was special? Harold was not a wealthy man, (although he was more contented than virtually anyone); he was not a Nobel prize winning scientist, (although he had more horse sense than most geniuses); he was not an Olympic athlete, not a cabinet minister, and you didn’t see his name in the newspaper. Fame and fortune were not Harold’s calling cards.

What was special about Harold was a simple trait; Harold never passed by people. Every person he met, big or small (oh, how he loved children!) famous or unknown, important or unimportant, was treated to Harold’s brand of friendship, good humor and charm. What was special was he never passed people by.”

This is the lamedvuvnik credo: change the world one person at a time. In the course of our lives, every one of us has met our own, personal, lamedvuvnik: a parent, teacher, friend, or even a stranger who has made an enormous difference in our lives. And they make that difference just by being good, over and over again.

Sometimes, you can be great just by being good.

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