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ב"ה

A Nation Alone

Friday, 25 June, 2021 - 6:31 am

Hacking is no longer only a hobby for the tech-addicted or deluded. From hospitals to pipelines, no one is immune.

In the Facebook era, we seem to really live by the Talmudic dictum, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours.” Any info I post is virtual public knowledge. I may think that I am tweeting something to one individual, but I better be careful– because the whole world may soon know about it.

So what should our attitude be toward an increasingly nosy world with increasingly easy access to our private information? Should we resign ourselves to the fact that we may one day see our own private info on a tabloid? Should we take every possible measure to lock all of our personal data?

I’ve heard the refrain, “I have nothing to hide so I’m not worried.” I’m not certain that everyone takes that position, but I’m not sure the Torah agrees with it either.

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In this week’s Torah portion of Balak we read about Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people. In the end, not only did he fail to jinx the Children of Israel – he delivered some powerful blessings instead. One of his more famous lines, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; you dwellings, O Israel,” has become part of the daily Jewish liturgy. The poetry and prose is beautiful – but what did Bilaam mean with this statement? What was so great about the tents and dwellings of the Jews?

Rashi explains that he saw that they pitch their tents so the doorways should not be opposite each other (respecting each other's privacy). This was something novel to Bilaam. In other societies, everyone was eager to see and hear as much as possible to share in the gossip column. But the Jewish people respected each other’s private space.

This does seem highly commendable, but what might it backhandedly suggest about what transpires behind the scenes? What was there to hide in the first place?

***

The true message of Bilaam goes beyond my duty not to eavesdrop or hack my neighbor’s phone. It talks to the essence of privacy and modesty, tzniut. Tzniut is not merely shielding others from damaging personal information. Tzniut is about priding ourselves in the sanctity of modesty.

The union between husband and wife, for example, is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary, it is considered a most holy moment. The privacy of such a time is not due to embarrassment from others. Some things are simply hallowed in privacy. They are too sacred to be exploited as public property.

Bilaam had an epiphany when witnessing the Jewish camp. They have nothing to hide, yet they still afford each other with privacy!

*

This week’s horrific tragedy in Surfside, Florida hits close to home. I served as an assistant rabbi in The Shul in Surfside for several years. It’s fair to say that a plurality of the residents in that building are Jewish and affiliated in some way with The Shul.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the entire community, led by my illustrious senior colleague Rabbi Sholom Lipskar.

Together with the heart-wrenching feelings of pain and concern, I am reminded of another one of Bilaam’s statements. Bilaam declared, “it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” He thought he was ridiculing the Jewish people. In truth, he was revealing the uniqueness of the Jewish people. That exceptional calling is on display in the response to this awful tragedy and crisis. Hatzalah was at the scene within minutes. Funds were raised. Housing was made available.

The Jewish community sprang into action.

We can take pride in the lessons – and actions – of our people. Hopefully, others will learn from our example.

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