Being Known Anonymously

Yom Kippur Morning 5775

I need to know, will you remember me next week? No really, I’m asking y’all a question, will you remember me next week? (“yes” hopefully) Will you remember me next year? (yes) Will you remember me in 10 years? (yes) Knock knock, (Who’s there?) What?! You forgot me already?

We all want to be known, even when we want to be mysterious, we hope and wait for the moment when someone will know us, really know us. And none of us wants to be forgotten. Certainly not easily forgotten. And yet sometimes anonymity raises us up to become the kind of people who cannot be forgotten.

Once, there was an important fund-raising dinner for a very good and useful non-profit organization not unlike our own. At this dinner they were hoping to encourage larger donations by announcing each pledge as it came in by name. Then the MC announced that they had just received a pledge of $10,000 given anonymously. Greenberg suddenly raises his hand, and as the usher comes over to collect his pledge card, he announces loudly, “I’d like to give $10,000 anonymously too!” (It’s Yom Kippur folks, the jokes don’t get any better)

We know there is honor in giving generously and anonymously, but sometimes we still want it to be known how generous we were anonymously. We want credit for our good work and even though we know the good work credits us regardless of anyone else knowing sometimes what we do doesn’t really feel real if we are the only ones who know we did it.

There has been a trend happening in some places, most notably in Canada, but in the US as well, of folks going into Tim Horton’s (the Canadian coffee shop) or through the drive through at Starbucks and paying for their own coffee and the next persons or even the next several people’s. At Tim Horton’s there have been a few incidents of folks paying for the next 500 customer’s coffee.  All of it done anonymously. Imagine the good will and good feeling that brings. There is the person who donated knowing that they are giving many people a happy surprise throughout the day. There is the server who has the joy of saying that the customer’s coffee has already been paid for by a previous customer. And of course there is the regular average Joe (shall we say) who was happily surprised by an already-paid-for cup of coffee. And of course the best part of these acts of random kindness is that they encourage more. I have heard the story of a starbucks drive-through that went all day with each person buying the coffee for the person behind them. One lovely anonymous act of kindness begetting another lovely anonymous act of kindness.

There are many Jewish traditions about righteous anonymous behavior, including the anonymous lamed-vavnicks, the 36ers. We are taught that at all times there are thirty-six righteous people in the world. They are the minimum number of utterly moral people in each generation that are necessary to sustain us all. This legend may have roots in the story of Abraham’s efforts to save Sodom (Gen. 18) by arguing with God against destroying the city and it becomes evident that any society must have a minimum number of decent people in order to survive (Gen. R. 49:3; Zohar I:105b; Tikkunei Zohar, 21).

Abraham and God settle at a minimum of 10, a minyan of righteous people, but later tradition seems to settle that minimum number at 36, perhaps because it is symbolic of “abundant life”: Double chai, double life. According to the “thirty-six” legend, most of the thirty-six are nisterim, unknown, anonymously doing their good work unnoticed by the world.  In fact, they are anonymous even to themselves. That is, these people holding us all up, doing good work regularly and without fanfare, do not themselves realize that they are one of the vitally important lamed-vavniks.

There is a however a special reward for their anonymous labors in that they are privileged to directly experience the Shekhinah, the loving and friendly face of God, and if things work out just right, one of them in each generation is suitable to be the Messiah (Sanh. 97b; Chul. 45a; Gen. R. 35:2; Mid. Teh. 5:5; Zohar 2:151a).[1] Becoming the Messiah is, I would think, an interesting alternative to good works done in anonymity.

Anonymity of course doesn’t only happen when someone does some independent act just without acknowledgement. It also happens when a crowd does something together. There can be a lot of power in a community of nameless individuals working together as a group towards a common goal. Of course this can go terribly wrong when we think about “mob-mentality” acts of violence. Large groups of people getting caught up in bad or dangerous actions because of the frenzy of doing the thing together with a large group of others. The feeling one can’t be caught because there were so many. Or of course the childhood whine that “everybody is doing it.” The ancient Israelites who were caught up in the creation of the golden calf might have felt like it was acceptable because so many others wanted it. A tyranny of the majority or a sense that if something is desirable by the majority, then it must be correct.

Of course we know that a majority of people thinking together can be very incorrect. History is full of stories of the majority making terrible decisions. Mark Twain warned, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.”[2] However we also know that even when we disagree with the majority, or we believe or act differently than the rest of our community, being a member of a community means that we are held responsible for any or many of the acts of the community, even if we ourselves never took part in those acts.

We imagine ourselves able to stand apart from our community or behave differently enough that we can change the group. And sometimes this is true. Zusya once asked his brother, the wise Rabbi Elimelech: “Dear brother, we read that the souls of all men were comprised in Adam. So we too must have been present, when he ate the apple. I do not understand how I could have let him eat it! And how could you have let him eat it?” Elimelech replied: “We had to, just as everyone had to.” He goes on to explain that the snake’s promise that eating the fruit would make the humans like God was so powerful that Adam was consumed by this poison. And that even had all the souls of men together kept him from eating the fruit, the idea of the fruit would have still been a poison inside of him.[3] All of humanity standing together to stop Adam from taking a bite, and yet he did it anyways. The majority could not change him or stop him.

And yet because of this act of eating, the world changed, Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden and all of us from that point on have had to deal with the consequences even if we weren’t responsible for the act.  Obviously this is just the first time we have to deal with the consequences of other people’s behavior, unfortunately not the only time. Our lives are filled with consequences for actions we ourselves are not guilty of.

We spend a lot of time during Yom Kippur reading the Vidui, the communal confession. This comes in two forms the Al Chet and the Ashamnu. These confessions we read aloud together contain a lot of sins, which have most likely have not been committed by all of us, but have possibly been committed by some of us.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches, “…the Rabbis are unanimous [but not anonymous] on the point that …Yom Kippur liturgical confession in public does not obviate our having to seek forgiveness directly and personally from the people we have wronged. Nor does confession permit us to repeat our old, erring ways, even if we do intend to ask forgiveness again next year. So, [even] with all these caveats, one of the highlights of the Yom Kippur services is [still] the repeated communal Confession of specified sins, most of which the individuals present have not themselves committed.”[4] These confessions in their current form date back to, at least the 9th century.[5] And we can imagine that since that time, the question has been raised, “Why would we have the entire community admit to sins of which they may not be guilty, wouldn’t we prefer it if each worshipper were to admit to their own sins, perhaps during a quiet silent prayer?” To be sure, there is time for individual silent meditation during the services and throughout the whole day. But that wasn’t really the purpose of these set confessions.

You may have noticed that the Ashamnu is a list of alphabetical sins, both in Hebrew and in English. Now in our prayerbook the English isn’t an exact translation of the Hebrew, and that is because the editors of our prayerbook wanted to preserve the sense of the poetry and the alphabetical nature of the prayer. That’s why we must confess the sin of Xenophobia, we needed an X. Rabbi Hoffman again explains that, the alphabetical list should clue us in that these sins are not the real sins, they are just the ones that fit in the aleph-tof or A-Z structure. Therefore it’s not what we confess to together that’s important, it’s that we stand together and confess that’s important. That we recognize in ourselves and each other that all of us have failed to live up to our highest potential.”[6] There is both a communal sense of universal sinfulness and a communal commitment to altering humanity’s sorry state.

At every service beginning last night until we hear the final Tekiah gedolah of the shofar later this evening, we will stand together and confess these universal sins. We stand together, beat our chests together and confess to these woes together not because we believe that we are responsible for these exact sins, but we know that we are all responsible for some sins and confessing together, anonymously, as it were, allows us to confess, period. This act of group confession may better encourage each of us toward silent individual confession to God or even better, out loud confession to those we’ve harmed. This is not an exercise in public shaming, instead it is meant as an exercise in public healing, public acceptance of our human flaws and the fact that it is easier to change when we have communal support.

There are many reasons we may act anonymously. When we make a donation without attaching our name, it is about the gift or the act of giving. We are in some ways detached from it. We gave without any expectation of acknowledgement or thanks. Knowing that the donation will be used without anyone knowing it was from us, we can give and walk away. However, sometimes, often, we do give with our names attached. In Cincinnati in the 1980s, an insurance magnet, Carl Lindner, gave the largest Federation gift each year, sometimes up to a million dollars. He was not Jewish and did not want recognition, he simply appreciated how Jews had helped him when he was young, and he loved Israel. The Federation convinced him to be the honoree at a tribute dinner, which raised more money than they had been able to raise by honoring some of his Jewish peers.

Using his name wasn’t just about honoring Carl Lindner, it was about recognizing the relationship between Lindner and the Federation. By acknowledging his commitment to the organization, many more donations were made and the Federation and all of its charitable works benefitted significantly. Maimonides who is known for his ladder of charitable giving who ranks giving anonymously among the highest or best ways to give also acknowledges that when humbly using a donor’s name will increase giving or increase honor, this is a higher form of donating.[7] When we give anonymously the focus is on the giving, but when we attach our name to our giving, the focus changes to the relationship between the giver and the recipient.

There is something very beautiful about acknowledging that relationship. When the recipient can say thank you without any loss of dignity it is as good for the recipient as it is for the donor and certainly when we are talking about non-profit organizations rather than individual receivers of Tzedakah this is even more true. When we give and allow our names to be used, we are publicly attaching ourselves to the community to whom we are giving.

But atonement is a different animal altogether. When we stand together apologize together for sins that any of us or none of us have committed we are anonymously joining ourselves to our community. We are supporting each other’s quest to be better without public examination of our individual errors. But when we atone directly for our own sins, acknowledging and admitting to them and making amends, then it is not about the community, it is about the act itself, both the sin and the repentance.

The dictionary tells me that the definition of anonymous is “nameless” or “undistinguished” I humbly disagree with both of these. No human act can be entirely nameless. A name is always there even if it is unacknowledged. We are always named in our actions whether publicly or privately, whether between ourselves and the community or just between ourselves and God.  An anonymous act or communal prayer can be quite distinguished. Adding or removing our name from it is precisely what distinguishes it.

Ultimately it is no sin to be known, in fact it is exactly the reason for community. To bond with each other, support each other, humble each other, and elevate and honor each other. When our acts both good and questionable can be fully attributed to us it only adds to our memory. To how we are known and to how we are remembered. When a person dies we say zichron or zichronah l’vrachah may his or her memory be a blessing. And we talk about the person’s loved ones being helped in their mourning by the “good name” of the deceased. This “good name” develops over time with the collection of behaviors that can be attributed to that loved one.

So I hope you will remember me, I hope you will remember my goodness and my acts of giving and I hope you will remember my struggles and my sins and you will support me through them even if you do not know I am experiencing them. And I will remember you and do my best to honor those same struggles for each of you that I ask you to do for me.

The Israeli poet Zelda wrote, L’chol ish yesh shem, Each of Us Has a Name:

Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents

Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls

Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing

Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love

Each of us has a name given by our celebrations and given by our work

Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death.

May we use our time this Yom Kippur and throughout the year to acknowledge the power of our names to understand the value of attaching them to our gifts and opinions and also to acknowledge and understand the power of anonymity. When do our names join us with community and when do they separate us. When do they bring honor and when do they bring pain. And may we all remember that we are always Kol Ami, the voice of my people. Ken Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will.

[1] Many thanks to Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis for his work on the 36, many of my words here come directly from his work found at
[2] Notebook, 1904 (By way of
[3] Martin Buber, “Tales of the Hasidim,” Schocken Books, 1947, New York, pp.243-244.
[4] Hoffman, Larry, “Gates of Understanding 2: Appreciating the Days of Awe, CCAR Press, 1984, p. 119.
[5] Ibid.
[6] ibid. p.121.
[7] this story comes from Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman