Courtesy and confidentiality

Courtesy and confidentiality

Vayikra | Leviticus 1:1-5:26

We live in a world of cell phones, e-mails, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We have no privacy, for 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.

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

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

The right to privacy and the ability to assume confidentiality are universal human values; they are primary Jewish values as well. Sources for these values in our tradition include this week’s Torah portion.

This might come as a surprise because Vayikra is the introduction to Leviticus, which focuses on sacrifices and Temple ritual and may appear 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 phrases two subtle messages.

The Lord called to Moses first and then spoke to him. He didn’t surprise Moses or intrude on his privacy. First, He called to him, knocking on his door, as it were, asking to be invited in. No unwanted intrusion, even from the Lord Almighty.

This observation is made by the rabbis in the talmudic tractate Yoma. In a less well-known talmudic source, the tractate Derech Eretz, the rabbis find that the Almighty’s concern for the privacy of his lowly creatures goes back to the way He treated the first man, Adam. In Genesis, 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 about to ensue.

The rabbis on the same page in Yoma find another message in the opening verses of our parsha: “…saying: ‘Speak to the people and say to them…’” From the redundancy here — “saying” and “speak” and “say” — the rabbis derive the lesson that when someone tells you something, you are forbidden to share it with another unless given explicit permission. Moses was not permitted to re-tell even the divine message that he heard until God Himself told him that it was okay to “say it over.”

The medieval Rabbi Moses of Coucy actually lists the admonition for utter confidentiality as among the 613 commandments.

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