The Legend of the Lamed Vov and Disclosing the Self

As the most recent posts to this blog attest, trying to figure out the thoughts and words of the current candidates for President of the United States is a distinct and frustrating challenge. There is no doubt these dissolute prospects on both sides of the political spectrum are indeed artful dodgers: they disclose very little of their true selves – obscuring by accusation and fabrication their fundamental beliefs and the content of their souls. I define the soul as that part of us that brings meaning and purpose to our lives. We know about the soul of others only by what they disclose about their selves.

For the purpose of this search for the soul of our politicians, I refer to a wonderful book by Sheldon B. Kopp called If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The audience for this slim volume is meant to be psychotherapists, admonishing them to be careful: if you are looking for the master, the guru, the therapist, the Buddha, or any person who proclaims they have ALL the answers to everything, you will never find your soul: the meaning and purpose of your life. The search for answers is to be found within the self, by searching the narratives, the stories of your life.

Dr. Kopp states that the therapist, the guru, the Buddha,

instructs by metaphor and parable, but the pilgrim learns through the telling of his own tale. Each man’s identity is an emergent of myths, rituals, and corporate legends of his culture, compounded with the epic of his own personal history. In either case, it is the compelling power of the storytelling that distinguishes men from beasts….Today, each man must work at telling his own story if he is to be able to reclaim his personal identity.

While everything depends on the telling of the narrative, it is almost equally important there be someone to listen to the tale. Dr. Kopp amplifies this process with the aphorism that “whenever two Jews meet, if one has a problem, the other automatically becomes a rabbi.”   However, in this process there is another characteristic that is essential: the listener must CARE as well. “This universal human need is touchingly revealed in the metaphor of the Legend of the Lamed-Vov. “

Please note, I am a goy and claim no knowledge of the Jewish religion or Kabbalist tradition. However, the following brief story is the most important narrative in all my learning as a psychiatrist and as a physician, as well as in all my relationships with others, regardless of context. I have told this tale to hundreds of soldiers who have lost their sense of identity, of self, after experiencing severe trauma. I have read variations on the details of the legend, but the power of the story remains unchanged.

The terms Lamed and Vov represent the value 36, with lamed equal to 30 and vov equal to 6, in the traditional system of Kabbalist numerology. In Jewish legend there are always living 36 “Just “ men, the Lamed Vov, spread throughout the Diaspora and according to the tradition, the continued existence of the world depends on these anonymous men. When one man dies, another is immediately appointed by God. The thing that distinguishes the Lamed Vov from other men is their unquenchable capacity for caring. A new member of the Lamed Vov may not even know of his appointment for this chosen task. Part of the mythology is that a true member of the Lamed Vov possesses such humility that he can not conceive of himself as being a member of this order. Dr. Kopp describes these men in the following way:

So inconsolable are the Just Men in their anguish about human suffering, that even God himself cannot comfort them. So it is, that as an act of mercy toward them: From time to time the Creator, blessed be His name, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute.

And thus, in the spirit of this legend is the story of a young boy who has lost his parents and lives with his aging grandfather. (Note: the essence of the story is taken from Dr. Kopp’s book, but is amended and paraphrased in the manner it was related to soldiers I struggled to guide in their search.) The grandfather learned that one of the Just Men had died and the boy was chosen to be the successor and will take the place as one of the Lamed Vov. The boy was told he would come to know the spirit and strength of this honored position. Though the boy knew of the legend, he did not understand the reality of his task and was bewildered by what he should do as a Just Man. His grandfather told him he did not have to do anything to fulfill his destiny but continue to live his life as good little boy.

But the child was initially frightened and worried that he would not be able to meet the requirements of his appointment to the Lamed Vov. He felt he must meet the unknown requirements so that God will be satisfied and spare his grandfather from dying. It became his obsession that great self-sacrifice and suffering will be necessary for him to fulfill his responsibility.

While terrified, he was ready to do whatever was required and he made the decision to test his ability to withstand any pain or torment. He started by holding his breath as long as he could, but soon learned the need to take in air overwhelmed him. He then failed in his attempt to go outside in the bitter cold of winter without a coat, and to go without food and water for long periods. He failed all these tests of his strength and devotion. Finally he put a flame to the palm of his hand but then could not hide the pain and scar from his grandfather. The boy sobbed because he knew that he could not save his grandfather.

The grandfather was extremely distressed and profoundly touched when he learned the boy was testing himself in order to save his life. Despite his misunderstanding of his mission as a Just Man, the boy was in fact acting in the spirit of the Lamed Vov. The grandfather explains:

He teaches the boy the nature of his monstrous error by explaining that as a Just Man, he will not be able to change anything. He will save no one. A Just Man need not pursue suffering. It will be there in the world for him as it is for each man. He need only be open to the suffering of others knowing that he cannot change it. Without being able to save his brothers, he must let himself experience their pain, so that they need not suffer alone.

Of all the people I have met in my life, the soldiers I encountered in the last 5 years of my life understood and identified with this story the most. They lived the concept that “I‘ve got your back; never leave a fallen comrade.” The reason D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944 was successful in WWII was not because of some general’s brilliant plan of attack. The allies ultimately prevailed because of the profound perseverance of the troops on the ground. Those Soldiers, Marines and Seamen were not going to let their battle buddies down. I recall this same spirit in my father’s work as a fire fighter. His crew of men loved him and each other because they were always there for each other, in dangerous situations, off duty and at the end of their lives. It took me years to finally understand my father’s allegiance to those men. My father did not know it, but he was a Just Man. I tried, despite the policies of the Department of Defense, to always let soldiers know that they would never be abandoned; they would never suffer alone. I could not change the trauma they experienced, but I could be there with the pain and suffering. Dr. Kopp expresses this more eloquently when he states, as a therapist, he must feel vulnerable to the pain of his patients and he wants them to become personally important to him.

I returned to read Dr. Kopp to understand the polar opposite of the Lamed Vov is the person on an obsessive quest for power and control of others. He fluently uses William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to demonstrate the “Tale of a Power Trip.”

Here is Macbeth:

Once content to serve those in power, he now begins to know the ‘black and deep desires’ of greatness, the ‘vaulted ambition’ for a position above other men. He suddenly sees anyone who stands between him and his ascendance to the throne as ‘a step on which I mist fall down or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies.’”

I do not do justice to Dr. Kopp’s detailed and enlightened analysis of a power trip, but summarize with his statement: “The illusion of power over the feelings of others is a deadly chimera.”

In case the message is not clear, I am not voting for any person for president, or dog catcher for that matter, who does not understand the Legend of the Lamed Vov and does not allow this concept to change how he relates to other human beings, regardless of their religion, color of skin, sexual orientation, or country of origin.