Thursday, January 20, 2011

Repent! Signed, Anonymous

They tell the story of the rabbi who finds a slip of paper under his door, with one word on it: Jerk!.

So the rabbi gets up in shul on Shabbos morning and says, “I’ve received letters before where someone wrote a whole message and forgot to sign his name, but this week I had a first: Someone signed his name and forgot to write a letter!”

This never happened to me in my rabbinate, but I always get a kick out of the story - especially when I get the urge, as I still do from time to time, to drop someone in shul an anonymous note.

It’s hard to be a mochiach (rebuker), as I’ve explained somewhere on this blog before, so I’d really rather leave people Post-It notes with references to Shulchan Aruch, or fortune cookie-style slips of paper with pithy suggestions. The concept is tempting, with its promise of non-confrontational improvement… but, boy, would that be a bad idea. Even if I weren’t caught.

First, it’s a bad idea because leaving off your name only means that the recipient will focus on figuring out who wrote the note, not on the contents themselves. You know it’s true; imagine how you would react upon receiving such an annoying message. Who’s thinking that about me? And why doesn’t he have the guts to say it to my face? Maybe it’s Yochanan. Or Shmuel. Or Yehudis - yes, it has to be her, I see the dirty looks she gives me at kiddush. And then you get the revenge plans: I’ll show her! I’ll do… etc.

But second, it’s a bad idea because that’s not how mussar (rebuke) works. Most of us don’t learn from information; we learn from relationships, from people about whom we care and who care about us. Straight information is hard to internalize unless one is predisposed toward it, as in the case of a person who learns mussar regularly. As a general rule, we learn better from people who we know respect and care for us. Take the mochiach's face out of the picture and it won’t work at all. (For a great example, see Yisro’s approach to Moshe in this week’s parshah.)

And then third, my Rebbitzen (cue the angels with the trumpets! rays of light break over the horizon to herald the words of the great tzaddekes) points out the rebuker needs to face the rebukee face-to-face, so that he’ll be forced to think about the best way to present his message. If he has to do this directly, he might actually think twice and three times about whether to present the message at all.

So the anonymous notes don’t go out. Instead, I have to sit down and think through how to say, what to say and when to say. More work…


  1. OTOH is anonymous tochacha better (for the reciever) than none at all?
    Joel (would some power the gift to gie us to see ourselves as others see us)Rich

  2. Not-anonymous praise: Love the humor! Love the shalom bayit trumpets. And, of course, you are right.

    Thousands of years ago (in the pre-religious era), when I was an unremittingly sarcastic young pain in the bloomers, a friend invited me to a party. I proceeded to act and speak disdainfully (but quite wittily, or so I thought) of some of his guests. He sent me a six-page handwritten letter which told me in no uncertain terms that people who don't care for his friends need not attend his parties. Of course, I was devastated and embarrassed.

    Most important: that letter changed my life (thank G-d). I owe that young man a debt of gratitude. And I probably would have missed the message if he hadn't signed it, for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

    Keep writing.

  3. Speakiing of rebuke: I need some advice. In my modern Orthodox shul we have some long time members: a father and two adult sons. The father is the gabai. The two sons are morbidly obese but that is not the real problem. There is a lot of sleeping, snoring, talking and worst of all loud passing of gas. If someone shushes one of them he shushes back. The irony of the whole thing is we just got beautiful engraving above the ark that states: "Know for before Whom you stand" Our rabbi seems to be ignoring the problem and I wondered if I should send an anonymous letter to the rabbi or..? Should I ignore it? I want to add that this is a tiny, tiny Orthodox community and there isn't any place else to go ..

  4. Joel-
    Perhaps not...

    Thank you very much - and while a six-page handwritten letter certainly will hurt, I'm glad it had a positivee effect.

    Sounds like a tough one. Why not speak to the rabbi directly, rather than anonymously?

  5. As someone who blogs and comments over/under my own name, I do wish I knew more about those who comment on my blogs. I've always felt that if wrote something I couldn't sign my name to, it shouldn't be written at all.