God's Secret Agents
Angels on earth do good deeds and carry out God's will with grace and humility by keeping their true identity concealed.
Modesty and spiritual power: Every Bible reader knows that these two qualities go hand in hand. Though it isn't always easy to conceal their splendor and force from mortal eyes, the angels of the Bible often like to work incognito.
Think of the three shining strangers who visited Abraham at Mamre, for example, or the fourth man who showed up with Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace. None of these people announced themselves as angels. Rather, they were simply and mysteriously there, at just the moment they were needed—and gone just as fast.
The Bible's great human heroes do the same. Jewish legend says that after being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah chose to descend to earth again and again over centuries, to help people unawares. He continues to return to this day, and when he does, he likes no disguise better than a beggar's rags.
One place where this tradition of modesty and secrecy is most famously present is the group of stories and legends that have built up around the Lamed Vav—Hebrew for the number 36. First mentioned in Jewish teachings 1,700 years ago, the Lamed Vav are a group of saintlike men who never tire of doing good deeds for their fellow human beings.
Though not outright angels, the Lamed Vav do have a certain supernatural quality. They are privileged to be able to look directly upon God, and God himself, it is said, looks upon them as pillars holding up the human community. Legend has it that in every generation, you can always find exactly 36 of them doing their work on earth.
That is, if you can find them. For the most distinguishing characteristic of the Lamed Vav, along with their love for helping others, is their insistence upon anonymity. Modesty is so central to the Lamed Vav that, should fame or renown come the way of one of them, he must cease immediately from his activities.
One legend tells of a Russian couple whose son became mute. They asked their rabbi for help, and he told them to take their son and travel to a distant town. "There you will find a small house at the foot of a mountain belonging to a woodcutter," he said. "Stay there until God sends a cure for your son."
The couple did as told, but they were surprised to find that the woodcutter could not help them. Why come all that way?
"Well, I do happen to know a young man," the woodcutter said. "A baker. He might be able to help." In fact, the woodcutter told them, he had long suspected that the young man was a member of the Lamed Vav. Now, the woodcutter believed, he had proof. "That young man must be the real reason your rabbi sent you to me."
The couple found the young man and told him of their encounter with the woodcutter, and of their rabbi's words that had led them to him.
"What, he has discovered my hiding place?" said the young man. "Tell the rabbi that next time I won't be so easy to find!"
With that he blessed the couple's boy and vanished. Somewhere else on earth at that precise moment, we can assume, the young man's place was taken by a new member of the Lamed Vav.
True or legendary, the Lamed Vav and the stories that have grown up around them illustrate a truth at the heart not only of Judaism but of all great spiritual traditions. God's work happens best on earth when it is done with simplicity and humility, far from the limelight. And because this is so, we never know who, among the people we meet and interact with each day, might be one of the spiritual giants who are secretly holding up the whole world.