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Excerpt from My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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My Grandfather's Blessings

Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging

by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D.

My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. X
My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D.
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    Apr 2000, 368 pages

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When we offer our blessings generously, the light in the world is strengthened, around us and in us. The Kabbalah speaks of our collective human task as Tikkun Olam; we sustain and restore the world.

As a child I had loved the story of Noah and the Ark the best of all my grandfather's stories. He had given me a coloring book that had pictures of all the animals, two by two, and Noah and his wife, looking much like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus but dressed in a different way. We spent hours coloring in this book together which is how, at almost four, I had learned the names of many animals. We had also discussed the story at length, and wondered about the surprising possibility that even God sometimes makes mistakes and has to send a flood and start all over again.

The last picture in the book was a beautiful rainbow. "This represents a promise between God and man, Neshume-le," my grandfather told me. After the flood, God promises Noah and all of us that it will never happen again.

But I was not so easily fooled. This whole thing had started because people had been wicked. "Even if we are very naughty, Grandpa?" I asked. My grandfather had laughed then. "That is what it says here in this story." He looked thoughtful. "But there are other stories," he told me. Delighted, I asked him to tell me another one.

The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. In this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is a part of the human condition. These thirty-six are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.

"Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?" I asked, certain that he would say "Yes." But he shook his head. "No, Neshume-le," he told me. "Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them."

It turned out that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. "And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world," my grandfather said. "It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so."

I sat and thought about this story for a long time. It was a different story than the story of Noah's Ark. The rainbow meant that there would be a happily-ever-after, just as in the stories my father read to me at bedtime. But Grandpa's story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, I realized that I had no idea what it was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? "How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "What do they have to do?" My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. "Ah, Neshume-le," he told me. "They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world."

Recovering a greater compassion may require us to confront the core values of our culture. We are a culture that values mastery and control, that cultivates self-sufficiency, competence, independence. But in the shadow of these values lies a profound rejection of our human wholeness. As individuals and as a culture we have developed a sort of contempt for anything in ourselves and in others that has needs, and is capable of suffering. It is not a gentle world. As life becomes colder and somehow harder, we struggle to create places of safety for ourselves and those we love through our learning, our skills, our income. We build places of security in our homes and our offices and even our cars. These places separate us from one another. Places that separate people can never be safe enough. Perhaps our only refuge is in the goodness in each other.

From My Grandfather's Blessings : Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging, by Rachel Naomi Remen. © April 10, 2000 , Rachel Naomi Remen used by permission.

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