The Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart’s compelling novel, chronicles the pain and suffering of the Levy family over eight centuries. Each new generation includes a Lamed Vavnik, or Just Man, who must bear all of the suffering of the world in his heart. The Just Men exemplify for their co-religionists the ideal of patient submission to the constant harassment of a world in turmoil. How is the duty of a Just Man a microcosmic reflection of the fate of the Jewish people as a whole?
In many ways, the Levys see the role of the Jews in this world as a selfless and sacrificial one. In order to lessen the pain of others, they must heft an enormous heavy burden of misery. A great deal of their willingness to accept this burden, however, springs from their eternal hope that God will eventually allow them to pass into the promised land:
“O God,” the Just Man Ernie Levy said to himself as bloody tears of pity streamed from his eyes again, “O Lord, we went forth like this thousands of years ago. We walked across arid deserts, and the blood- red Sea in a flood of salt, bitter tears. We are very old. We are still walking. Oh, let us arrive, finally!” (Page 372)
However, the life of a Lamed Vavnik is an even more demanding endeavor: a Just Man must bear his torment as an individual, for the Lamed Vavnik have no comrades with whom they may share their anguish. Often, a Just Man may go through life in almost total anonymity — receiving no recognition for his stoic endurance. And, the Just Men are not offered the incentive of reward for their thankless suffering, only God’s consolation to ease the weight on their souls.
Andre Schwarz-Bart portrays the Lamed Vavnik as a hereditary position; at once great honor and a vast challenge. During their lives of humble service to humanity, Just Men must successfully face incredible challenges to preserve their status and fulfill their duties. A Just Man must at all times have the humility of a “small fish” even if he is aware of his sacred position. He must preserve his faith in God and in humanity regardless of his personal distress. Above all, he must not resist his calling for the sake of personal comfort, instead he must whole-heartedly bend himself to the task of alleviating suffering.
For their fellow Jews, the Just Men serve as inspirational examples of wisdom, tolerance, and dedication. Without their leadership and the motivation of their self-sacrificial lifestyle, the Jews would be unable to bear the torment of the world. “…the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry.” (Page 5) Together, the Jewish people and the Lamed Vavniks act as a buffer for the peril of humanity’s misfortune.