Courtesy and confidentiality

Courtesy and confidentiality

Vayikra — Leviticus 1:1-5:26

There is no such thing as privacy anymore.” “There are no secrets anymore.” These two complaints are heard frequently nowadays.

We live in a world of cell phones and e-mails, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We have no privacy; almost anyone can reach us, wherever we are, at all times of the day. And we can have no secrets, because anyone who knows anything about us can spread it to the entire world in a matter of seconds.

How often have I sat down for a moment of private time, for study or contemplation, only to have the silence disrupted by some total stranger who managed to obtain my cell phone number? How many dozens of e-mails and blogs fill my inbox with communications that are at best of no interest to me and are often offensive and obnoxious?

We once felt entitled to privacy and courtesy, but they no longer seem achievable.

Often, we write a confidential note to a trusted friend, only to discover it circulating in cyberspace. Sometimes, it is the friend’s betrayal that has made our secret public. But often, it is simply carelessness, a mistaken pressing of “send” instead of “delete.”

We once expected confidentiality and discretion, but they too no longer seem possible.

Contemporary society has lost what once was a primary value. “A man’s home is his castle” once meant that decent citizens respected the “fences” around another’s personal space and would not casually trespass those boundaries.

The value of trusting in the discretion of another, once a cornerstone of human interaction, is now in danger of being relegated to the oblivion of “old-fashionedness.”

The right to privacy and the ability to assume confidentiality are universal human values. It is important to know they are primary Jewish values as well. Sources for these values include this week’s Torah portion.

Vayikra serves as the introduction to Leviticus, the biblical book that focuses upon sacrifices and Temple ritual. The portion seems limited to the comprehensive and complex details of sacrificial offerings. Where is there even a hint of these contemporary concerns, courtesy and confidentiality?

Verses one and two in chapter one say it all, albeit between the lines:

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them….’”

The rabbis of the Talmud saw in these simple and direct phrases two subtle messages. First, the Lord called to Moses before speaking to him. He didn’t surprise Moses or intrude on his privacy and autonomy. There was no unwanted intrusion, even from the Lord Almighty, on his favorite prophet.

This observation is made by the rabbis in the talmudic tractate Yoma. In a lesser known source, the tractate Derech Eretz, the rabbis find that the Almighty’s courteous concern for the privacy of his lowly creatures actually goes back to the way He treated Adam. Genesis 3:9 says, “The Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” Here too, even when the Lord wishes to rebuke Adam, He first “calls to him,” signaling the uncomfortable conversation that is about to ensue.

The rabbis, on the same page in Yoma, find another message in the deceptively simple opening verses of our parsha: “…saying, ‘Speak to the people and say to them….’” From the redundancy of “saying” and “speak” and “say,” the rabbis derive that when someone tells you something, you are forbidden to share it with another unless you are given explicit permission to do so.

Moses was not permitted to re-tell even the divine message that he heard until God Himself told him it was okay.

The medieval Rabbi Moses of Coucy actually enumerates this admonition for utter confidentiality as one of the prohibitions of the Torah’s 613 commandments.

It is difficult indeed to combat the value system that is foisted upon us by the technology that pervades our world — but necessary. If we lazily submit to the pernicious influence of modern conveniences, we risk the ultimate loss of our humanity.

A culture devoid of courtesy can turn into a culture of callousness and cruelty. A world where one cannot trust a confidante is a world where authentic friendship is impossible.

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