Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sacrifice and Anonymity

(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.

(pages 87-89)


Anonymous said...

how does this show a distinction? who you are remembered as being is not necessarily who you aimed to be remembered as.

Chana said...

Of course. But the point of the essay is that the goal isn't to be remembered at all. The goal is to do what you can do and to do it well, to use your talents and abilities appropriately for a purpose that is important and that matters to both you and the community, and to have the grace and the ability to step off the stage when your part in the play is done.

It always strikes me as deeply ironic that the Rav was willing to do this but hasn't been given the ability to do so (since everyone persists in recalling/ redesigning/ recreating his memory.) I think, perhaps, that is how such things must always be- those who are willing to be anonymous will not be, and those who crave recognition will be.

Scraps said...

I agree. However, it is also important to have the ability and the insight to step onstage when it is necessary and called for. There is no glory in false humility.

Anonymous said...

Obviously I agree with this, having just said the same thing myself, but I'm curious to know why were the names of some rabbis not recorded while others were. I assumed the names of the anonymous rabbis were just lost in the mists of time. Surely the mishna tells us to relate a teaching in the name of the one who said it?

David_on_the_Lake said...

So true.
I would take it a step further and say that our goal is purely in the theatre of action..not even accomplishment.
In this world we're so used defining accomplishments as the successful outcome of an endeavor.

Also I think there's a big difference between leaving over something a family, a foundation..or a book.. and "just being remembered".

Anonymous said...


Good job. Great article and thought provoking question...


I agree with you about the difference between having something of material to be remembered by and just being remembered. Even so, though, both can accomplish two very opposing things, as people can be remembered for tachlis-type reasons, or just for hevel havalim kinds of reasons.

Although one of the points of the article was to show that a big part of Judaism is being modest and non-attention-seeking, I think it's important to know about our Rabbis and how they lived. There are such invaluable lessons that can be learned from them--often lessons that can be learned from noone else but them.
So why is it so important that the identity of so many of them remaines shadowed? Is it only to teach us R' Soloveitchik's lesson?

Erachet said...

Ha! I knew this was the right answer (see my comment in the post above)!

As I mentioned in my comment in the other post, I realize that this is ideal. But I think it takes a person on a very high level to accept this and even desire it. I am not on that level. Perhaps someday I will be. I'm still very young. But though I recognize something mentally, I cannot force myself to desire it on an emotional level. I can tell myself over and over that as long as I do what is right and good in this life, it doesn't matter if I'm remembered afterwards, but that doesn't mean I'll feel that way. I'll still have this burning desire to be known. Like you said, this feeling is natural. Take Achilles, for example, who had the choice between going to fight, getting killed, but being remembered as a great warrior, or going off to live with his mother and have a long but forgotten life, disappearing out of the picture. Such a choice is not an easy one.

I suppose that glory is a dangerous thing to seek and should only be given to those who stumble upon it accidentally. And now I made myself feel like a bad person :(

Chana said...

I think I need to clarify. Simply because the Rav wrote this does not instantaneously make it applicable to all of your lives. There are others who think and feel differently, I am certain. There is no "right" answer. This is one answer. It is the answer that I need, because I struggle with my pride. There's a quote that states that the world would be a better place if nobody cared who got the credit for making it that way. And for me, that's true.

Recognition, prizes, rewards and the desire to be remembered are all natural. And they can all be channelled appropriately, and I do not think that everyone is supposed to give them up. This essay is not meant for every single one of you; I would never want to say that. But it is meant for me. I need to get beyond the training part- because I realize that for me, prizes, rewards, recognition, praise, flattery and compliments is valuable training- and on to the true part.

If this comes naturally to you, then it is no sacrifice. This is only a sacrifice if it's something you want with all your being and are nevertheless willing to let it go. Which is what I am slowly teaching myself to do.

You can do something that is right and be recognized for it; the two can complement one another. But my goal should not be the recognition. It should be the rightness of the action. Anything I have ever accomplished that I have truly felt proud of has come about due to that- I have done something because it was right and I knew it to be right, not for the prize. These are my shining moments and they are all secret; no one has any idea and therefore no one can reward me. This is what it is to be anonymous...

Miri said...

Esther did live the rest of her life quietly and anonymously in the palace. That was her ultimate sacrifice, made when she was first chosen to be in the beauty contest, bc the women who did not become queen still had to remain in the palace as part of the king's harem. There are those that say that she was the mother to the king Daryavesh who first let the Jews return and start re-building the beit hamikdash.

Looking Forward said...

modesty is a major ikkar of the torah. one who wants to be remembered does his acts not for g-d but for himself, so isn't it a bit like avoda zarah?

to be remembered is to have you're shame put on public display, and certainly not something I would want. Who is there who lives who doesn't have a secret shame?

I don't understand why one would want to be remembered. It's not tznius.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so this actually does go very well with my thoughts about and comment on the previous post.
I have no desire to be famous. I'd like to be thought well of amongst those who know me.
But it is anonymity that speaks to me. I look at, as I wrote before, my life littered with well-documented embarrassments and cringe.
So, I can't say that I would prefer anonymity over the positive things I have done, the good qualities I have had, but I certainly would prefer anonymity to all that I would rather not be remembered.
I don't care to be remembered by society. That doesn't speak to me. That only reminds me that if society wants to find out about me, there is plenty of awful stuff to easily be found. I would, however, like to be remembered, with fun stories and wisdom handed down, by those who love and know me, to whom I was personally very important. Unfortunately, I have no such people in my life, and I haven't lived such a life to be remembered that way.

Chana said...

Anonymous 9:19,

Well, I don't know who you are, but simply for living, you've made the world a better place.

Your simple desire to have lived your life differently, your regret should you have hurt others, the fact that you admit that you wish you had done things differently- this is a realization, and perhaps a painful one, but it is a realization that uplifts you and makes you so much more than you are. Perhaps you cannot change the things that you have done but you desire to change them and even that simple desire makes you into that person you wish to be, that good and kind person who will be remembered for good.

Your life has not been worthless, if only because the few words that you have written here hold meaning for me, and I am certain, for others as well.

In all things, may you continue to grow and prosper.