(Please read the post above this one, "How do you want to be remembered?" first.)
This is from The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2. This quote made me aware of the distinction between who I am and who I aim to be. I start off every morning thinking about this quote. For me, it is possibly the most important idea the Rav ever gave over:
A courageous life, an existence dedicated to service, creates a heroic life. A heroic life means a life of sacrifice. The highest level of sacrifice for a human being is not when he gives his life for his ideals. The highest form of sacrifice, as viewed by Judaism, is the readiness of man to leave the stage after discharging his role and vanish into anonymity and oblivion. More than a person wants to continue living, he wishes to be remembered. He wants to be recalled by individuals and by society at large. He wants to feel that he has accomplished something with his life.
This quest to be remembered and to not be forgotten is intensely powerful. I remember that many years ago in Boston an old woman would bring me some quarters every week in order to pay for a hundred-dollar memorial tablet in the shul. She would count the money with trembling hands: one quarter and another quarter, a third quarter and a fourth quarter. It was during the difficult years of the Depression. I finally asked her: “Tell me, my dear lady. Do you have savings in the bank?”
She answered that she had none.
“So why do you give the money to the shul? You cannot afford to do so,” I stated.
She replied: “Rebbe, I want to be remembered. Once I die I know that my children will not think about me. They will never come to shul to say the Yizkor memorial prayer. This way the shul will remember me at Yizkor.”
This is not just the mentality of an unlettered or perhaps a primitive old lady. She was an honest woman who was expressing the mentality of Western man. When [Lyndon] Johnson accepted [John F.] Kennedy’s invitation in 1960 to run as his candidate for Vice-President, many felt it was a comedown for Johnson. A journalist asked him: “Why did you accept it? After all, as the majority leader of the [U.S.] Senate, you wielded so much more power and influence. You commanded the respect of the White House, and now as the Vice President you will be little more than an errand boy for the President.”
Johnson answered the reporter: “Yes, you are right. But history textbooks will accord two more lines to the Vice-President than to the majority leader of the Senate.”
To this way of thinking, power in the present means little if the individual will not be remembered in the future. This is in contradistinction to Judaism, where the stress is on anonymity. Let me give you an example.
There are many men here who study gemara. Many times in the Mishnah the anonymous opinion of the tanna is quoted. He is known as the tannah kamah [the first tannah]. Who is he? What is his name? Who is the tanna bathra [the last tanna]? They are part of the majority of Jewish scholars who remain anonymous, men without names. In the Talmud we often come across the introductory phrase tanu rabbanan [“the rabbis taught.”]. Who were these rabbis? What were their names? Why were the sages so tight-lipped about these rabbis? It is not just a coincidence or neglect on the part of the talmudic scholars. The names were purposely not recorded, to teach us that we must remain anonymous. The greatest of all sacrifices that a Jew must bring is his readiness to sink into oblivion and remain in the shadows of anonymity.
It is very strange, but we know more about the lives of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato than we know about the Vilna Gaon. What do I know about my father? Very little. He never spoke about himself and did not write an autobiography. What do I know about the life of my grandfather Reb Chaim? Only isolated episodes. He never confided his private experiences or clandestine emotions to anyone. Whatever happened, happened between them and God.
God requires of man the greatest of all sacrifices- anonymity. He hates vainglory but loves the actor or the actress who appears on the stage for a short while and humbly discharges his or her role, disappearing afterwards without receiving applause. Man stands in the limelight as long as he consecrates himself to the covenantal community. The very moment he finishes his job, the lights are dimmed or, rather, extinguished, and man steps off the stage.
What does the Megillah tell us about Mordechai and Esther after the Haman episode? Did she remain the queen of Persia? After all, she was a young girl and must have lived for many more years. Nevertheless, the Megillah does not mention one word about this part of her life. “Then Esther the Queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote down all the acts of power to confirm this second letter of Purim” [Esther 9:29]. The story was finished, and Esther removed herself from the stage.
What do we know about Mordecai the Jew? “And all the acts of his power and his might and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai, how the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?” [Esther 10:2]. Go ahead and find this volume! Yes, one episode of their lives, and a short one at that, was recorded. The rest was anonymous. That is exactly what the prophet Micah said: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord seeks from you; only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your God.’ I would say: walking anonymously with your God.