There is a legend about thirty-six righteous individuals who are so good and so noble that the world is sustained by their deeds. They are called the Lamed Vavniks (the Hebrew letters lamed and vav add up to thirty six). Crucial to this legend is the fact that their identities must always remain obscured. If but one of their names is revealed, another must take his place. Otherwise the world might teeter and even collapse.
It is interesting to note that according to this tradition, our well-being is not only placed in the hands of a few righteous individuals, but in their identities remaining concealed. Why is it so important that they remain hidden? It is because the world really does require hidden sparks of goodness.
Doing good should not be predicated on recognition or reward but instead on the needs of others, on the requirements of the world at large. That is the message of the Lamed Vavniks. They do good only because the world needs it. Their reward remains in God’s hands. The Torah teaches: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; and those things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may observe all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)
The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendle of Kotzk opines: “The world thinks that a tzaddik nistar—a hidden righteous person—is a person who conceals his righteousness and his good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that a tzaddik nistar is one whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from himself, and who has no idea whatsoever that he (or she) is righteous.”
How different the world might be if good was so ordinary that even the doer remained unaware.