Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My life as a secret agent

CNN has an article here about a woman named Laura Miller who styled herself “Secret Agent L” and did nice things for people anonymously, and then started a blog to encourage others to do the same. You can find her blog here.

ברוך שכוונתי – My wife and I did this in our community in Rhode Island, when we had just gotten married. This is the first time I’m writing about it; as the Rambam wrote, it’s best to be fully anonymous, but I think Laura Miller is also right – it pays to publicize this sort of thing, in order to encourage others to do likewise.

It was very simple: We went to a local florist on a Friday and bought a bouquet, and then gave it to our partner in crime, a high school student who did the delivery. The note was simple: “Have a good Shabbos,” and it was signed, “A Friend.” That was it.

We did it for several months – this was before we had children, when we (thought we) could afford it. We sent the flowers to older people who lived alone and to families, to people who had friends and people who were more reclusive, to people from our shul and to people who were not affiliated.

It was fun, and it felt good, and it was a mitzvah, designed around the gemara’s account of Mar Ukva and his wife leaving money behind a door, for a pauper to find (Kesuvos 67b). I admit that we naively thought it might take off on its own, inspiring recipients to do likewise for others, but we never heard of anyone else doing it.

[Of course, we also worried that there might be a "creep factor" involved - that someone might suspect something weird or improper was behind the flowers, leading to trouble. Not unlike some of the "secret missions" listed on Laura Miller's blog; in one, for example, someone leaves body wash and body lotion in a fitness club shower, with a note that this is a gift given in kindness. I, for one, wouldn't use those if I found them; I'd worry about a hidden camera prank, or worse.]

Fast-forward a dozen years later, and the Internet is a great tool for helping to promote this sort of activity. יישר כחך, Laura Miller – good job, and may you grow stronger in your efforts.

Added note: In a sense, the shul rabbinate is essentially a career of anonymous favors - finding ways to help people, directly and indirectly, often without them knowing you are the provider. Now that I’m out of the pulpit the opportunities are fewer, but there is always some way to do it.

To cite Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, regarding his father, Rav Chaim of Volozhin:
והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחרינא. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.
He regularly rebuked me, because he saw that I did not participate in the pain of others. And these were his constant words to me: "This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers."


  1. where is that quote of R' Yitzchook of Volozhin found?

  2. mekor b-
    R' Yitzchok's hakdamah to Nefesh haChaim.