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Should Your Email Remain Confidential? #735

07/15/2022 05:32:38 PM

Jul15

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Balak: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

Should Your Email Remain Confidential?

 

I have a question relating to privacy.

When you send an email or text - perhaps containing something sensitive or personal - do you expect your message to remain private?

It’s a question we consider whenever we put something to paper – or when we communicate a heartfelt feeling or concern.

Experts on media and privacy sadly note that when we write an email or send a text, while we may view it as a sealed letter, the recipient too often regards it as a postcard - potentially there for others to see.

So, how - in a world where, increasingly, so little is private - can we ensure that the feelings or personal reflections we share will not either be forwarded to others, or even used against us or someone later?

Over the centuries, Judaism has taken aim at this complex issue, promoting the idea that spreading information about another person can be one of the most egregious sins a person can commit.

The topic comes under the category of lashon harah – translated as evil tongue, or gossip.

Much of Judaism’s focus on lashon harah riffs off an incident that appears in this week’s Torah portion - Balak.

As the Israelites continue their 40-year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land, they approach the nation of Moab – located roughly in today’s southern Jordan.

But there is a problem. Balak, Moab’s leader, has heard about how Pharaoh, the Egyptians and other nations, were defeated by the Israelites, and he is concerned that the Israelites will pick apart and loot his country.

Balak contracts Balaam, a local priest, to curse the Israelites. But after being offered massive amounts of gold and silver, Balaam remains reluctant.

Balaam ultimately agrees to travel with Balak’s advisors, to the area of the Israelites’ encampment. 

God is not happy that Balaam even considers the offer. Even Balaam’s donkey chimes in, warning Balaam that armed angels stand in front of him. 

But then something changes. As Balaam approaches a hilltop, he is afforded a bird’s eye view of the Israelite camp, and rather than curse the Israelites, he blesses them with words that - to this day - are recited as we begin our daily morning prayers.

“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

(Cantor Gustavo Gitlin sings this Biblical verse in Hebrew:) Ma tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishk'notekha Yisra'el.

Our Sages have asked, “What was it that Balaam saw that inspired him to bless the Israelites as opposed to cursing them?”

And – based on the biblical verse - they conclude that Balaam noted the way the hundreds of thousands of Israelite tents were positioned in the desert.

According to the 3rd-Century Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, “He saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another.” (Bava Batra 60a).

Simply stated, Balaam observed that no one’s open door or window faced that of their neighbor - that privacy and modesty were core values of the Jewish people. And that was worth blessing.

The story of Balaam and the tents dates back perhaps 3,500 years. Rabbi Yochanan lived 2,700 years ago. And to this day, Judaism’s concern over personal privacy remains.

Our contemporary rabbis connect the biblical verse to how we navigate current issues relating to information and personal privacy.

And that extends to emails, texts and social media. They ask, how much information is too much information, and what should be shared – or not?

And just as it did in the desert, the concept begins at home.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Western Wall rabbi, notes: “We live in a generation that has left us almost completely exposed, and therefore we must learn the limits of suitable exposure. Learning this is particularly crucial for youth.

“Excessive extroversion, the sort that exposes details of a person’s personal life, does not allow for introspection or refinement of emotions – processes that are crucial for spiritual development.”

About 1,000 years ago, Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1040) was asked to rule on a crucial issue related to a new technology – the mail. He was asked, “Is it permissible when someone gives you a letter to deliver to someone far away, to open the letter and read its contents?”

He concluded that opening someone else’s letter would be comparable to “breaching a fence.” “No,” he said, “It is not permissible to read someone else’s correspondence.”

A further ruling by a modern rabbinical scholar concluded that, “One who received a personal letter or email may not show it or forward it to others without the permission of the sender.”

Unfortunately, we live in a society without that expectation of privacy. Perhaps that is why - in a world where information flows so freely, virtually without any boundaries, fences or ethical standards - so many feel so exposed, lonely and isolated these days.

The commentary surrounding this week’s Torah portion inspires us to reembrace the concept of privacy, amidst the Jewish teaching that none of us has the right to extend attention, observations, and judgments across the thresholds of others.

It extends from how tents were positioned 3,500 years ago, to the confidentiality of correspondence, to eavesdropping, to emails, texts, social media and other posts today.

When we send a message to someone, tragically, we have no way of knowing what the recipient will do with our words. But we, ourselves, possess the capacity to act as safe and confidential caretakers of words or thoughts shared with us by others.  

“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel”

Perhaps now more than ever, in the noisy and confusing world that surrounds us, we need to provide intimacy, honesty and confidentiality for each other.

May our homes and our domains be blessed with a respect for privacy. And may the words shared with us in confidence remain in our hearts.

May we be mindful of what the ancient priest, Balaam, observed almost 3,500 years ago.

We do not peer into the lives of others. Indeed, we have enough to take care of within the walls of our own tents.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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Sun, November 27 2022 3 Kislev 5783