Illuminating the Inner Lamed Vovnik
What is the difference between “Lamed Vovniks” (the thirty-six secret righteous Jews in each generation) and the generic “Tzadik nistar” (hidden righteous person)?
The thirty-six are referred to as “lamed vovniks” according to the numerical equivalent of the letters ‘lamed’ (thirty) and ‘vov’ (six). The idea is based on the verse Isaiah 30:18 which praises those who faithfully trust in Him - “Lo” in Hebrew - spelled lamed vov (Succah 45b).
Our Sage Abaye taught that there are at least thirty-six of these secret, righteous Jews in every generation who receive the Divine Presence. However, Rava counters with a source that suggests there are eighteen thousand hidden righteous Jews. The Talmud reconciles this apparent contradiction by stating that only thirty-six see the Divine Presence with completely illuminated vision (‘aspaklaria meira’) whereas all the others see with occluded vision (Sanhedrin 97b).
Perhaps this is the basis of the difference between “lamed vovniks” and other hidden righteous individuals. Another difference might be that the “lamed vovniks” cannot be discerned at all, whereas the others may be recognized by those who know them well.
Interestingly, another source reckons forty-five righteous Jews upon whose merit the world continues to exist - thirty in the Land of Israel and fifteen elsewhere. There are also thirty hidden righteous gentiles upon whose merit the nations subsist (Chullin 92a).
The Talmud teaches, “The Light that G-d created on the first day was a special, spiritual light with which Adam could see from one side of the world to the other. When G-d considered the misdeeds of the generations of the flood and of the tower of Babylon, He hid the light from mankind and preserved it for the future righteous” (Chagiga 12a). This light shone for thirty-six hours from midday Friday when Adam sinned through the departing of Shabbat at nightfall. The thirty-six hours that this primordial Divine Light shone served as a precedent for the thirty-six secret righteous Jews in each generation to behold the Divine Presence.
What about the rest of us, have we no glimpse of this hidden light? The answer is in the Chanukah menorah. As we light an additional light each night, we contemplate how G-d helped the forces of light overcome those of darkness: “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many to the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked in the righteous, and the wanton to those faithful to Your Torah”. Night after night, the darkness of exile is expelled with the light of redemption, until on the last night of Chanukah we have lit a total of thirty-six lights. This then is our opportunity to behold the Divine Presence emanating from the Chanukah menorah, enabling us to illuminate the little “lamed vovnik” within us.