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Mind Your Own Business #683

06/25/2021 04:42:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Balak

“How lovely are your tents, people of Jacob.” (Numbers 24:5)

Mind Your Own Business

We live in a world where, it seems, everyone is looking over your shoulder.

Internet-based companies track your searches and your shopping habits, and then target specific ads and promotions to extract more business from you.

A recently released Apple ad draws on a 40-year-old song by the group, Delta 5, highlighting enhanced security features, and implores those who spy on us to “Mind Your Own Business.”

But minding our own business did not start with Apple or Delta 5, or growing public concern over Internet privacy.

Interestingly, the concept of personal privacy takes shape in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, where the king of a desert nation implores the non-Jewish priest, Balaam, to curse the Jewish people.

In some ways, the story of Balak and Balaam is a comedic interlude within the Torah, because it involves a talking donkey. But it ends with an amazing prayer, which — for many Jews — leads their morning prayers.

The Torah recounts that Balak is told that the Israelites are approaching. He’s heard of Israel’s military might and the God who is guiding its journey. Balak warns his elders, “This horde will lick clean all that is about us.” (Numbers 22:4)

Balak contacts Balaam — reputedly the world’s powerful wizard — and offers him gold and silver to curse the Jewish people. Balaam sets out but can’t seem to find his way out of his neighborhood.

His donkey sees an angel in the way, but Balaam does not. The donkey swerves into the field to avoid the angel. Balaam yanks him back. The donkey then pins Balaam’s leg against a fence, and then lays down.  

Balaam continues whipping the donkey, who ultimately turns to Balaam in protest, and asks, “What have I ever done to you that you have beaten me three times?”

At that moment, Balaam realizes who the true ass is. God enables Balaam to see the angel standing in front of him, and is eventually inspired to bless the Israelites.

So, what caused Balaam to change his mind?

The Talmud tells us that as Balaam approached the Israelite camp, he noticed something remarkable. Notes the great sage Rabbi Yochanan, “He saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another.”

Our rabbis note that this demonstrated the respect the Israelites had for each other’s privacy. No one could peer through a neighbor’s door, and then criticize or gossip based on what they had heard or seen.

Declares Balaam, “ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael.” “How lovely are your tents, people of Jacob.” (Numbers 24:5)

It was the respect for privacy, Balaam observed, that ultimately turned his curse into a blessing.

The issue of privacy has concerned our Sages for centuries.

About a thousand years ago, Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1040) was asked to rule on the issue of privacy and correspondence. Was it okay for a third party to read a letter addressed to someone else?

Rabbeinu Gershom declared that the laws of privacy, modeled by the Torah, did, indeed, relate to the delivery of mail. Over time, this attention to privacy has been updated by succeeding rabbis to govern all types of communications — from party lines, to chat rooms to — these days — even the Internet.  

As it was in the desert centuries ago, so it is today. Tradition instructs us not to eavesdrop or read someone’s private postings or otherwise glean information by peering into someone’s window. We are taught once someone closes their door we have no business places our ear against it.

Isn’t it interesting that email, which began as a private form of communication, has evolved from the realm of a closed letter to that of an open postcard?

Judaism places a high value on privacy. For as many of our Sages have noted, if we devote too much time monitoring the lives of others, who is attending to our lives?

This week’s Torah portion leads us toward an eternal message: Privacy is important.

The growth of the “gossip business” should concern all of us. How many television programs and websites flood our homes with information about the failures, challenges and troubles of others?

Whether for business purposes or to aggrandize ourselves at the expense of others, we need to consider ways to position our doors and windows away from others.

It’s a Jewish value Balaam recognized thousands of years ago. It’s a message that should inspire us today.

In which direction should our tents be turned? What type of information should we seek as we interact with the outside world through our windows?

Tradition tells us that the ancient Israelites resisted the temptation to occupy themselves with the lives of others.

Indeed, society as whole would do well to mind its own business.

For there is so much within our own tents that needs attending.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Click on Apple Ad: “Mind Your Own Business”


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