A little over thirty years ago I read a book called A Tzaddik in our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin by Simcha Raz. (It is still available, and I urge you to read this great work; you’ll thank me for it!)
Rabbi Levin was known as “the tzaddik of Jerusalem.” Among the many extraordinary things he did, every Shabbat Rabbi Levin visited Jewish prisoners in pre-state Israel during the British Mandate.
Those of you who know me well are aware that I have, for many years, sent Jewish books to Jewish prisoners. There is even a federal penitentiary in Texas with an “Arthur Kurzweil Judaica Collection” in the prison library. The Jewish prisoners there, who I’ve sent many books to individually, once decided to pool their books and then asked the prison officials to make a special section of the prison library so that the books could be readily available to all.
So, in a way, I have a special connection to Rabbi Aryeh Levin.
In 2004, Rabbi Steinsaltz gave a talk in memory of Rabbi Aryeh Levin at the Underground Prisoners Museum in Israel. The evening was hosted by the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage Center.
Click here for an English translation of that talk by Rabbi Steinsaltz:
By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
It has been said that in every generation there are thirty-six hidden tzaddikim, righteous people, in whose merit the whole world continues to exist.
However, one great tzaddik once said that sometimes, even non-hidden tzaddikim, people whose righteousness is overt, are also hidden tzaddikim. That is because what we do know about them is very little. Whatever is unknown about them – that is the part of the hidden tzaddik within the revealed tzaddik.
This number, 36, is part of Jewish folklore – but where does it come from? What is unique about it?
This number is mentioned for the first time in the Talmud. I assume, although I cannot fully prove it, that our Sages chose that number because it is the majority of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin court was made up of 70 people who were, in fact, the judges of the world, and in a certain sense, the leaders of the world. In order for the world to continue existing, at least the majority of this court – 36 – must be righteous people.
Some of the 36 may not fulfill important roles, or occupy prominent positions. It may also be that the other 34 (*) members of the Sanhedrin were not such great tzaddikim. And yet, it was those 36 tzaddikim, the majority of the Sanhedrin, who decided time and time again that indeed the world merits continuing to exist.
What is a “Tzaddik”? This term has many different definitions: ranging, on an ascending scale, from the person who thinks that his or her conduct is in order – to someone larger than life, a sublime human being indeed.
However, I would like to speak about this term in relation to the figure of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. I had the privilege of knowing Rabbi Aryeh when I was a very young man. I still keep at home a letter that he wrote to me in reaction to something I had written: a very loving, heart-warming letter, a letter which is like a caress – which I may not have deserved. And it is because I knew him that I think he is indeed a good example of what can be called “a tzaddik.”
The basic question about a tzaddik is not “What did he write?” He may not have written anything at all, and still he is a tzaddik.
The question is also not “What did he say?” He may not have said anything worth repeating – and still, he is a tzaddik.
The question is even not “What did he do?”
The essence of a tzaddik is in what he is. The essence of being a tzaddik is something primordial, like the essence of a precious stone. A precious stone does not have to do anything: it simply exists. So, too, those tzaddikim are counted among the 36 righteous ones not because of their deeds, but because of their essence.
Not everyone can merit being a tzaddik. There are people who write important books, others who do great and mighty deeds, others yet who produce pearls of wisdom – and they are all great people, each on his own level. But a tzaddik, and especially a tzaddik who is “the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25), is possibly born a tzaddik.
For the sake of comparison, let us look for a moment at the term “genius.” Geniuses are born geniuses, but they have to develop their talent; not everyone who can become a genius does indeed become one.
As for the tzaddikim, perhaps the Almighty scatters all over the world some special sparks that, if they work diligently, if they evolve and develop, they are the ones who are bound to grow into tzaddikim. And, being tzaddikim, whatever they do are acts of righteousness. Or, as one great tzaddik once put it: Some tzaddikim fulfill God’s will; but there are tzaddikim who are greater yet, and whatever they do is God’s will.
Rabbi Aryeh was a Jew who was strict about small and great mitzvot alike; but his righteousness was not based on any small paragraph in the Shulhan Arukh, nor even on this or that Biblical verse. He was a tzaddik, and therefore whatever he did: his speech, his caress, his smile, the visits he paid, his special sensitivity to other people’s pain – all of it stemmed from his being a tzaddik.
Those tzaddikim who are “the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25) – not ones who are relatively righteous, or tzaddikim according to their deeds, but rather those who are tzaddikim in essence – cannot be imitated. They are like a rose, or a star. What does a rose do? Or a star? They are there. And wherever they are, they shed all around them some kind of a light, a glow This glow is their deeds, words, smiles, gestures; and all of this, put together, is the sum total of “tzaddik.”
There are different kinds of tzaddikim. The Almighty assembles His string of pearls, His most precious jewel, from different kinds of gems. The 36 tzaddikim, then, are not carbon copies of each other. Rather, each one of them is a figure, a being, in his own right. In a manner of speaking one can say that they are taken from different places. Some tzaddikim are taken from the deepest waters of the sea; others are taken from the rocks of the desert, or from a fertile valley. There are also tzaddikim who stand in front of Mt. Sinai, who have Mt. Sinai inside of them.
I think that Rabbi Aryeh, too, was hewn from a special mountain. However, I do not think it was Mt. Sinai. Because despite the fact that the Torah was given on it, Mt. Sinai has not remained holy.
There is, however, another mountain, a mountain of everlasting holiness: Mt. Moriah. It is the mountain on which father and son cry together, the mountain whose essence is giving ourselves totally for the sake of God.