In mystical Judaism there’s the wonderful concept of the lamed vavnicks, or “36 righteous ones.”
The term comes from the Hebrew letters Lamed (“L”) and Vav (“V”), whose numerical value adds up to 36. The “nik” at the end means “a person who ...” (Think “nunnick” or even “beatnik.”)
So, the term lamed vavnicks is sort of like saying “The Thirty-Sixers.”
The idea is that there are 36 people on the planet who are so humble and kind that they justify the existence of the rest of us in God’s eyes. The Thirty-Sixers hold the entire world together because without them, there would be no reason for God to spare our greedy and conniving species from destruction.
The lamed vavnicks don’t know each other. They don’t realize that they are part of the 36. In fact, tradition has it that anyone claiming to be a Thirty-Sixer isn’t one because a true lamed vavnick would be too modest to believe they’re a lamed vavnick. When one of the 36 dies, another is immediately chosen to take his (or her) place.
I tell you all of this not because I think a random piece of an ancient Jewish legend belongs in the pages of Pool & Spa News. It doesn’t. Instead, I bring it up here because the notion of the 36, on a metaphorical level, has a place in business and, more importantly, in life.
I don’t believe that there are 36 actual people who keep the rest of us alive by their goodness. Yet, if I were to sum up the lamed vavnick story into once sentence it would be: Kindness and humility are what holds the world together. And that I do believe. Without the quality of empathy, our lives on Earth would be unbearable, a truth that’s evident even in dystopian sci-fi movies, from “A Clockwork Orange” to “The Hunger Games.”
Taken a step farther, anyone who acts with kindness is improving our odds of all our long-term survival. Treating people well — customers, family and employees — even if they treat you badly, has a way of paying forward. That nasty person who still got great service often is a lot nicer next time because there’s something about true kindness that makes rude people embarrassed by their own behavior.
The lamed vavnicks don’t literally exist, but what does exist may be better. I believe that the hearts of the 36 are spread around the six billion, so that all of us, at any moment, have the ability to act generously regardless of how we’re treated. We can choose to judge and snap at others, and tell ourselves we’re right. Or we can choose to be 1/36th of the solution.