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PRIVACY – A Precious Value Worth Preserving

by Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

Exodus Chapter 28:34-35 says, “A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it while officiating so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary . . . and when he goes out.” The tinkling of bells was to precede the arrival of the Priest himself. We learn from this interesting instruction that it is a mitzvah to respect people’s privacy, not to sneak up on them.

Jewish law dictates that if you come to someone’s home to collect a debt, you may not enter that person’s home without permission. Even if you have every right to the money or the object you are seeking, halacha requires that you wait politely outside the door. Respect for the individual’s right to privacy is paramount, and yet today we moderns give away our privacy, sharing everything with everyone every moment with an ever increasing toolbox of social media.

When the Israelites camped in the desert wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, the Prophet Balaam exclaimed “ma tovu ohalecha Ya-akov” (how goodly are your tents, O Jacob) – a phrase which has become part of our Shabbat liturgy. What was so good about our ancestors’ tents? The Midrash tells us that the tents were erected in such a way that the door of one tent did not face the door of the tent next to it. Each household was afforded a modicum of privacy even in those very crowded circumstances. This sense of respect for privacy was what the Prophet Balaam admired.

In contemporary culture, on the other hand, there seems to be little or no respect for privacy. There is nothing too personal to be shared with the whole world. Yet, ironically as privacy becomes more and more extinct, its value is increasing. A recent article on celebrity weddings quoted a Brides magazine executive (no, I don’t read Brides magazine, but my colleague Rabbi Bonnie Koppell cited this quote in a column which inspired this message). The executive noted: “It’s almost a status symbol to keep your wedding private. Privacy is all the more paramount these days because it has gotten harder and harder to achieve.” Witness also the increase in private funerals – an unhealthy response, in my opinion, to the pervasive invasion and lack of privacy.

Perhaps the time has come to take a step back from our desire to over-share. Perhaps it is time to enhance our intimacy with a few good friends rather than spending our precious time sharing the superficial with our 1000 Facebook friends. There is a YouTube video, “Look Up”, which pleads that we set aside our devices, stop looking down, and look at each other instead. “Give people your love, don’t give them your like.”

Privacy should not be just for celebrities who can afford elaborate security. We can and should reclaim our own privacy and reserve something special for our deepest, closest relationships. Rabbi Koppell wisely reminds that Shabbat is traditionally a time to share with friends and family face-to-face, a day of leisurely connection, good food, conversation, a time of intimacy. As we are reminded by the priestly garments of the need to safeguard privacy, we are also reminded of the need to create moments when we can share openly – not just with those whose status we like, but with those whose presence we love.

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