Lamed-Vov means 36 in Yiddish. It refers to the 36 just men that are needed to support the world from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b. These men receive the Divine Presence. It is an ancient oral tradition so, as you might guess, there are many interpretations of it. These are mortal men, living regular lives and dying normally, so what if the number dips below 36? Are the difficult times we are experiencing indicators that we have indeed dipped? These men walk among us, but they are hidden, so how do we know?
So, lots of great stories get told about the Lamed-Vov. Some think that the one Messiah will come from the 36. So, you better be nice to anyone you meet, they could be the Messiah. The world somehow depends on these men for continued existence, although I’m not sure if it is ever explained how that works, or how the world will come to an end.
The story where I first found out about the Lamed-Vov was in the book, “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.”
The story goes that a boy is informed by his grandfather that he, the boy, is to be a Lamed-Vov. This distresses the boy, and he tries to figure out what he needs to do. He holds his hand over a candle flame to learn about suffering. His grandfather hears about this and gets distressed too. He explains that it is not necessary to do anything, just be yourself. The Lamed-Vov are not able to change anything, they can’t stop suffering or prevent people from dying. Their job is to be open to the suffering of others, so no one suffers alone.
He eventually gets it. He learns that love is more than simply being open to experiencing the anguish of another person’s suffering. It is the willingness to live with the helpless knowing that we can do nothing to save the other from their pain.