Meaning much more than it’s simple translation, a righteous man, especially in some expressions of chassidut the Tzadik is elevated to almost super-human status, endowed with the ability to intercede between a simple Jew and God. His is often conflated with Mashiach, who, himself, is elevated beyond the status of an anointed king in the line of King David, charged with re-enabling the Jewish people to return fully to Eretz Yisrael, leading the ingathering of exiles and, finally rebuilding the Bet HaMikdash, our holy temple in Jerusalem, extraordinary achievements all, but still very much human, to becoming parodies of comic-book superheroes.
Without a doubt, there have been tzadikim in our history, but the more traditional model is that they are one of the “lamed-vuv-nikim” (לו = 36), the Thirty-Six Hidden Tzadikim without whom in each generation, we’re taught the world cannot survive. These people are characterized by anonymity and humility and, of course, the clarity, compassion, kindness and understanding that are products of Talmud Torah v’Derech Eretz, Torah learning combined with compassionate and responsible living in the real world.
The path to ever-more-closely approach God through His Torah and Mitzvot is one that is open to all of us. Each of us has exactly the same tools that a Tzadik has, meaning that each of us has the exact same opportunity to become, ourselves, Tzadikim. Not personally reaching anywhere close to achieving this myself, I’m certainly not saying it’s an easy task. But, we are taught, especially by Tzadikim themselves, that it is always available. It is this possibility to totally transform ourselves that is at the heart of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur which we just experienced!
Likewise, we’re taught that there are two aspects of Mashiach, the individual and the communal. Each of us, through our hard work, can reach for ourselves, privately, the insights said to be generally available in the world in the approaching era of Mashiach. And when we all enter that period, are refined and rebuilt (one definition of תחית המתים (Techiyat HaMetim), “Reviving the Dead” (since until we become fully conscious, fully aware of and connected with The Creator, we are all, to a certain degree, dead inside), we’ll all fulfill our mandate of becoming כלם צדיקים… (Isaiah 60:21) (…Kulam Tzadikim) “…All of them Tzadikim”.
My point is that better than waiting and hoping and praying for the arrival of a Tzadik, of Mashiach, we have the power by refining ourselves with our miraculous tools of Torah and Mitzvot and Ma’ase Tovim (Good Acts) and Tzedakah (Charity), hopefully transforming our entire people and the whole world when the number of us who have sufficiently closely reached our potential finally achieves critical mass.
As our sages teach in Avot 2:17, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה, we’re not expected to complete the project, but we’re not relieved of responsibity to contribute to the effort. We also learn in Avot (1:6), in the words of Rabbi Parchya, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב (Oseh L’cha Rav), which is usually translated as “Acquire yourself a rabbi”. A much better understanding, also literally true to the text, is “Make yourself great!”
We’re just days away from refreshing the weekly Torah reading cycle at Simchat Torah. What better time, especially so closely following our renewal with the Yomim Noraim, Days of Awe, to re-create the world, this time as it should be.