How many truly righteous people do you know? People who not only dedicate themselves to living religious lives but who really strive to serve God, and succeed.
The true inner righteousness of another person is almost impossible to know because we have no way of assessing the inner workings of the heart and soul of another person. We may look around and see people whose apparent righteousness we admire and whom we might strive to emulate, but to know who is truly and purely righteous…
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b), in every generation there are thirty-six uniquely righteous individuals whose very presence maintains the world. “Abaye said: The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous people in each generation who merit to see the Shechinah [God’s presence]…”
It is generally assumed that these lamed-vav tzadikim, the thirty-six righteous ones, are “hidden.” By far, the majority of the “lamed-vavniks” (as they are affectionately referred to in Chassidic writing) are unknown, often living simple lives and bringing little attention to the acts of kindness that they perform or the level of spiritual knowledge that they achieve.
Why thirty-six? Abaya notes that the Hebrew word lo – Him–used in Isaiah 30:18 (Ashrei kol chochay lo -“Praiseworthy are all they that wait for him.”) has the numerical value of thirty-six. This phrase begins a section in Isaiah that describes the coming of the Messiah and the salvation of the Children of Israel: “For, O people that dwell in Zion at Jerusalem, you shall weep no more; He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry, when He shall hear, He will answer you” (Isaiah 30:19-20).
The “him” who is awaited is the Messiah, one of the thirty-six tzadikim of his generation who will emerge from anonymity to guide the Children of Israel back to the paths of righteousness.