In the bestiaries of Borges are always to be found some mention, however oblique, of the Tzadikim Nistarim, the sadly named ‘Lamed Wufniks’. The tale goes that they are 36 humans who form an invisible college of virtue. Should one realize his membership, he is immediately gathered up and his place assumed by another living worthy; further, their fate is humanity’s, for should ever the Nistarim cease, history will end in the brimfire of Judgment Day. They are the righteous man for whose sake Sodom is spared; the flooded survivor to whom the divine promise is made; the daily suffering scapegoat for mankind.
Perhaps they are an essentially Judaic retelling of that Buddhist cosmogony in which the universe is every instant created and destroyed exactly alike a billion billion times. Awake to the emptiness of being, an enlightened one accepts this ceaseless pointless churn of reality. But can a Western mind accept this? Rather instead, conjure this melancholic image - cosmic justice for this mundane world eternally frustrated by unwitting virtue.
In my darker moments, a similar pall is cast on the parable and I wonder if it is not what it seems, if perhaps it is a Kafkaesque joke - a subtle disproof of the existence of good. For if it is good for evil to be punished, for justice to be done, then mustn’t even the best of deeds if they frustrate justice be, in the final analysis, ranked as evil itself?
In my lighter moments, I am still troubled. It strikes me as juvenile. It is a commonplace among children that they are performing, always performing for an invisible audience; or that the world exists only as it meets their eyes. These beliefs are akin. What then is more juvenile than the entire cosmos saved from utter perdition by one’s unacknowledged virtue?
I have thought on it, and would like to offer another fable for this secular age - for as the medievals had their saints so should we.
This is it: that at any instant on this globe, there are 36 souls, briefly pure, all engaged in some act, large or small; in the secret record of their lives as recorded by the angels, it will serve as the justification of their lives. So, then, there is a continuity - if not the continuity of the original. My saints are extensive in space, not time. They flicker lambently over the world, membering multitudes. Each is unaware of his true vocation, of the mere moments granted them among the heaps of their lives. But I feel that there is something truly human about living for a genuine and true moment, no matter the brevity. “We go from anticipation to anticipation, and not satisfaction to satisfaction”, after all.
What is this act? I do not know. The ways of heaven are not the ways of men; their judgments are not ours. But this is how I like to think: It is a man and a tank; Williams at the Hall; a child flying a kite. It is Oppenheimer at Trinity; St. Francis on a hill; Einstein in the wind.
It is Simon carrying the cross.