We live in a world of cell phones and e-mails, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We have no privacy, for almost anyone can reach us wherever we are, whatever we happen to be doing, at all times of day. And we have no secrets, because anyone who knows anything about us can spread it to the entire world in a matter of seconds.
The privacy and courtesy, confidentiality and discretion we once felt entitled to no longer seem possible.
Our contemporary society has lost what once was among its primary values. The value of trusting in another 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 — and primary Jewish values as well. Sources for these values include this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra.
This might come as a surprise because this week’s portion is the introduction to Leviticus, the biblical book that focuses upon sacrifices and Temple ritual, seemingly limited to the complex details of sacrificial offerings. Where is there even a hint of these contemporary concerns, courtesy and confidentiality?
Chapter one, verses one and two, 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 first and then spoke to him. He didn’t surprise Moses. He didn’t intrude on Moses’ privacy and autonomy. First, He called to him. He knocked on Moses’ door, as it were, asking to be invited in. 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 less well-known source, the tractate Derech Eretz, the rabbis find that the Almighty’s courteous concern for the privacy of his lowly creatures did not begin with Moses. It goes back to the way He treated the very first man, Adam. In Genesis 3:9, we read, “The Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” Even when the Lord wishes to rebuke Adam, He first “calls to him,” signaling the uncomfortable conversation that is about to ensue.
God respects Adam’s privacy, and He doesn’t just “barge in” on Moses.
The rabbis on the same page in tractate 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 here — “saying,” “say,” and “speak” — the rabbis derive the lesson 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 told him it was okay to “say it over.”
The medieval Rabbi Moses of Coucy enumerates this admonition to respect utter confidentiality as one of the prohibitions comprising the 613 commandments of the Torah.
As I have reflected upon these teachings over the years, I have reached several conclusions: First, there is much that is implicit in the Torah, much that lies beneath the surface. The long and complicated ritual laws that confront us as we read this week’s parsha are in a context that teaches us more than the surface lessons.
Second, these under-the-surface lessons are often of astounding relevance for our contemporary condition. What can be more relevant than a reminder about the values of courtesy and confidentiality?
Finally, these lessons are not merely abstract bits of wisdom; rather, they are calls to arms, challenges for us in our daily lives.
It is difficult to combat the value system that is foisted upon us by today’s ubiquitous technological devices. But if we submit to their pernicious influence, we risk the ultimate loss of our humanity.
A culture devoid of courtesy can turn into a culture of callousness and cruelty; a world in which one cannot trust his confidante is a world where authentic friendship is impossible.
How fortunate we are that these lessons are available to us, subtly embedded in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion.