In December 1939 Nicholas Winton was getting ready to set off on a ski trip from England to Switzerland. Before leaving he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake. Blake told him “I have an interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother to bring your skis.” Germany had just taken over the Czechoslovakia, and thousands of refugees were dislocated, many with no food or shelter. Winton found that the needs of the refugees were not being looked after, and he felt that he had to do something for them, or at least for their children. So he petitioned the English government to find out what was needed for the children to be brought to England. They told him he would have to find a family willing to take them in, and have a 50 pound deposit per child, a significant sum of money at the time. Winton left the relief work in the hands of others and went back to England to organize the efforts to save the children. The British people opened their homes, their hearts and their wallets, and this was after already taking in 10 000 Jewish children from Austria and Germany, one of which was my mother. Over the next 9 months he would organize one flight and 7 trains, saving 669 children from death. These children would never see their families again. In 1988 Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in their attic, with photos of the children, a list of names and letters from the parents. After pushing her husband to come clean, she found out about his relief efforts.
This story is extraordinary on many counts. It shows us that one person can make a difference, and that just because no one else is doing something does not mean that it cannot be done. He did the impossible, which people said could not be done and saved hundreds of children, whose descendants now number in the thousands. But what I would like to focus on in the story of this incredible individual is something that we might at first think is a peculiar side point. Winton kept his heroic deeds a quiet for 50 years. Imagine having saving 669 lives, and the world not knowing about it.
In today’s world you go out to dinner, on a cruise or raise charity money by doing a triathalon and the whole world knows about it. In an article entitled “You Will Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay” Emily Smith writes in the NY Times that thanks to social media, purpose and meaning have become conflated with glamour.’ In the age of Shark Tank, celebrity chefs, American idol, everything is in the public arena. Living a meaningful life becomes equated with doing something attention-grabbing, becoming an Instagram celebrity, having over 1000 followers or becoming a reality TV star. And then when you accomplish that, you figure out how to monetize on it.
This outlook on the world is totally antithetical to Jewish values. The book of Micha which is one of the books of the Jewish prophets lays out the Jewish outlook on publicizing one’s actions. (Most of you think you do not know the Book of Micah but in fact if you have every done Tashlich before you have read from the book of Micha, the verse which begins Tashlich is taken from there). The book of Micha 6:8 tell us ‘what does G-d require of us: to do justice and love mercy and walk discretely before G-d. The Talmud in Sukka 22b asks: ‘to what does this refer? This refers to doing a mitzvah quietly for which we get public recognition like accompanying an orphan bride to the wedding canopy (one who does so would probably be given this role because they have paid for her wedding).’ This means we should not seek out acknowledgment for a good deed we have done. The Talmud then says all the more so mitzvoth that are done privately, such as Torah study or giving charity. These also should be done discretely and quietly without feeling the need to tell other people about it.
Why is it important to be discreet about our good deeds? The Talmud tells us elsewhere in Taanit 31 b that blessing is only found on something that is hidden from the eye. Why should that be, why should there be a deeper spiritual impact of an action that is done secretly?
I believe that there are two important ideas behind this. The first is the idea of what is called in Hebrew ‘ayin hara’, or the evil eye. Poo poo – the idea is that if we publicly display either our material wealth, our prosperity, driving around in the mazerati, wearing high high end designer labels (and making sure they are on the outside), building an enormous home, that other people will put the evil eye on us. And from what we see this can also be true if we put on display our righteous or spiritual accomplishments. Why is this damaging? One way to understand it is that if my blessing or my accomplishment becomes the vehicle through which other people’s jealousy becomes provoked, and they resent me because of it, or it makes them feel unhappy with their own lives, then this is not a blessing but something that is causing negativity in the world. And if it evokes negativity then the Almighty might take away the blessing.
The second point, and this is the one that is most relevant to us on an internal level, is that publicizing our acts erodes the quality of the experience. When I am doing actions that I know will be observed by others, or that I know I will be putting on display, then the experience becomes not truly mine, but it becomes one that is projected onto others. In doing so, I am diluting the meaning of the experience for myself. How many times have you worn something that you really did not like or think is nice, or was uncomfortable but it was the new hot thing so of course you had to wear it. Knowing we will be on display skews our sense of ourselves. We become a product of what people think of us, and doing this undermines our sense of self, our self-confidence and our ability to be our own unique selves.
Always having to show something to others or experience it with others is like pulling a seed out of the ground every day to look at how it is growing. By doing so I am stunting its growth. I will be distracted by knowing that I am publicizing it. It is like when you go to an event and you take pictures. You cannot really experience it, you cannot really be in the present because you are distanced from it by having to capture, or in this case publicize it. We are losing the fabric of our internal selves to the constant distraction and interruption of digital stimuli. As a result we do not know what it is to be in touch with ourselves, to let ourselves feel something or be in the moment, and we become it is not enough to just be in the experience without capturing or publicizing it.
Third, in the Torah we see that the encounter with the Divine is to be found in the moments of quiet and solitude, in moments of privacy. When Moses was on Mount Sinai, Joshua went up the mountain with him part of the way. But when Moshe asked the Almighty to show him His ways, to allow Moshe to experience him, G-d says find this place in the rock that I have prepared, and be that place as I pass by. The experience of the Divine is in solitude. It is in the recesses of our soul which we need internal focus and self-isolation in order to access. The prophet (I Kings 19-12) calls this the ‘small still voice’ of the experience of the Divine. In the case of doing a mitzvah, keeping it to ourselves makes it more likely that we motivated to do the mitzvah for its own sake rather than for ulterior motives like getting recognition. This is called doing a mitzvah l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven and for its own sake. It should be said that sometimes doing a mitzvah publicly can have the value of serving as an example to motivate other to do it as well, but we should make sure that our primary motive is not seeking the recognition.
The irony and post script to Nicholas Winston’s story turns our point on its head. After his story came out, Nicholas Winston was knighted and became Sir Nicholas Winston. In a 1988 filming of the show ‘That’s Life’, Winton’s wife brought him to the studio to see the show. Little did he know that he was a focus of the show, and that over two dozen of his ‘children’ were at there. Winton was 79 years old at the time. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 104, living another 25 years. it seems that the blessing continued to rest upon him even after his deeds were so widely publicized. Maybe that was because he had lived with it privately for so long, a demonstration that his actions were truly L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of the good deed and not for the recognition he would receive. May we all merit to have the strength of character to live with the humility of not seeking recognition, and to do good deeds and live our lives for their true value, and not for what we think other people will see them. And in the process may we merit to be blessed with the blessing of that which is kept private.