Yom Sheini, 23 Elul 5779
Monday, 23 September 2019
Parashat B'Midbar 2014

Parashat B'Midbar
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
23rd May 2014

In Parashat B’Midbar, Chapter 2, the Torah describes how the Israelites are to set up camp when they rest on their journeys through the wilderness.· At the centre of the Israelite complex is the Tabernacle, with the Ten Commandments engraved on tablets of stone enclosed in the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies.· Nearest to the Tabernacle, the Levites, the priestly tribe are to pitch their tents, occupying the most privileged positions because it is they who protect its holiness and serve in it.· As for the rest of the tribes, their tents are to be pitched around the Levites’ camp in four groups, each composed of three tribes united under a single standard or division.· Whether that concentric formation actually existed, we shall probably never know.· But given that this arrangement, even theoretically, might have caused immense density of housing and overcrowding considering the numbers of Israelites involved, this fact and a passage later on in the Book of Numbers, gave rise to the laws of hezek re’iyah – literally, damage caused by seeing.· In other words, intrusion of privacy through voyeurism.

In Chapter 24 of Numbers, the heathen prophet Balaam is commanded by the Moabite king to go and curse the Israelites.· Encamped on the borders of Moab, the king wants to ensure that they don’t trespass on his land or threaten his people with war.· When Balaam, after a series of adventures, arrives at the plain where the Israelites are camped, he opens his mouth to curse the people, but seeing their tents pitched in ordered circles of diminishing holiness around the Tent of Meeting, he blesses them instead.

In later Jewish literature, the Rabbis used a verse from this tale to underpinhezek re’iyah. What was it that Balaam noticed that made him invoke a blessing on the Israelites rather than execrate them? · What he saw, said the Rabbis, was that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another; they didn’t step out of their tents and into the tent of their neighbour and thus intrude on their neighbour’s privacy.· Balaam perceived the respect and dignity they accorded to each other.· And based on this, Jewish law forbids a person from opening a window on to a courtyard which is shared with others.· Nor can a person build any kind of entrance or extension which would interfere with a neighbour’s privacy – either because the door or windows might overlook shared premises or because the owner might bring more people through the shared space and cause inconvenience.· ‘Worthy are these that the Divine Presence should rest upon them!’ says Balaam in the midrash when he sees how the Israelites are respectful of each other’s privacy (b. Bava Batra 60a).

We might ask ourselves why the Talmud, edited well before the days of the internet and social networking, even before the days of newspapers and other media, should be concerned with individual privacy?· The right to privacy is at the core of human dignity.· The less privacy in a person’s life, the less an individual commands respect and trust.· Privacy is not only a pre-requisite for intimate relationships and friendships; it is also a pre-requisite for a free and open-minded society.· Our privacy, that is our right to seclusion, time alone, intimacy and solitude, the right to guard our own homes or space or conversations or thoughts, even, from intrusion is necessary to protect human freedom.· In Jewish law, a lender is prohibited from intruding into a borrower’s home to collect a loan – it is seen as an incursion into an individual’s private space.· The law against bearing tales against each other in Leviticus 19:16 is a means of protecting a person’s reputation and integrity – and this is a second aspect of privacy legislation, known in Jewish law as r’chilut. A third aspect was introduced in eleventh century Germany when Rabbenu Gershom issued a decree prohibiting carriers of postal communications from reading other’s mail in case they learnt trade secrets or spread slander.

Privacy, like freedom is an inalienable right for all human beings.· But is there a limit to the protection of privacy?· What does the Torah have to say about a situation where claims to privacy must be set aside in cases of testifying or protecting not only the person who seeks an injunction, for example, but those against whom he is attempting to hide his behaviour?· In such cases, the Torah would state that privacy is not an absolute right: it imposes a duty to testify in court, for example, if relevant facts are known even though they may be incriminating.

It is morally bankrupt to imagine that we can purchase our privacy to retain the shell of our status and reputation, but tip our values down the drain.· In some respects, such attitudes are the logical corollaries of a contemporary ideology that exempts us from any kind of social contract.· Individualism focuses exclusively on our own rights, the ‘me’ culture that couldn’t care less about the rights of others, even less our duties towards them.·

If religion has any purpose today and if Judaism can play its part in that purpose, it is to re-state the social contract we have with others.· We cannot claim our rights unless we are prepared to commit ourselves to the mutual obligations we have towards each other.· And those obligations are based on the values that lie at the heart of the prophetic reading that accompanies Parashat B’Midbar from Hosea: V’erastich li l’olam, v’erastich li b’tzedek u’v’mishpat, u’v’chesed u’v’rachamim, v’erastich li be’emunah, v’yada’at et Adonai – ‘I betroth you to Me forever; I betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and compassion. I betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Eternal One’ (Hosea 2:21-22).· Righteousness, justice, love, compassion and faithfulness – these are the values on which we must attempt to build our lives and a framework for our society.