Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp… Are these good or bad?
Like most things in this world, it depends. How these great technological advances are used determines if they are good or bad. I have, thank G-d, many close relatives all over the globe, and WhatsApp family groups help us keep in touch and aware of what is happening in everyone’s life. On the other hand, there has been a great increase in bullying as a result of social media.
The Midrash says that Torah is G-d’s blueprint for the world. This means the Torah has insight to offer regarding everything that exists. So where does the Torah address social media? I think the answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion, in a verse that is very familiar to us since we recite it daily at the beginning of the morning services.
The verse was first recited by the Midianite prophet Bilaam as he stood on a mountaintop overlooking the Jewish people’s campsite below. Although his intention was to curse them, the Torah relates that “Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d rested upon him (and it entered his mind not to curse them).” What did Bilaam see that stopped him from cursing them? His words contain the answer: “Ma tovu oholecha Yaakov, mishkinotecha Yisroel — How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”
What was it about the Jewish tents that Bilaam found so inspiring? The Talmud in Baba Batra (quoted by Rashi) explains, “He saw that the entrances to their tents were not facing each other.” This is what made the Jewish encampment so beautiful — privacy. There were clear boundaries of what is public and what remains private. People didn’t peer into each other’s homes (or tents), and people didn’t offer personal information to the community at large.
This Jewish value of privacy in enshrined in Jewish law. The Mishna in Baba Batra prohibits people from opening a window that overlooks a courtyard they share with others. (A courtyard in the times of the Talmud was an area where many activities took place; hence, the Talmud is warning against having a window that would potentially infringe on someone else’s privacy.) Certainly it is not allowed when overlooking a neighbor’s courtyard.
Furthermore, the burden of ensuring there is no invasion of privacy is not on the potential victim but rather on the potential offender. This is clear from another law in the Mishna. If one’s roof (that is seldom used) adjoins a neighbor’s courtyard (that is commonly used), the owner of the roof must construct a parapet four cubits high!
So while Benjamin Frankel said, “Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge,” halacha says, “Love your neighbor; therefore, put up a hedge!”
Why is privacy so important? This can be understood by a second interpretation of Bilaam’s words. Bilaam saw how each tribe camped in their distinct place. Chassidic thought understands this to mean that while all the Jews comprise one people, each tribe has its own unique path in serving Hashem. The same is true for each of us as individuals; we each possess unique qualities which we utilize to serve G-d in our one-of-a-kind way.
This explains the importance of privacy. By allowing each person their space and privacy, we allow each person to develop their own unique qualities. When there is a lack of privacy, people often follow the trend instead of developing and expressing their own personality and qualities.
Social media has broken down the barriers of what is meant to be private and what we share with others. Be it pictures, information, or thoughts, everything is out in the open. Let us try to remember the message from our Parsha before we share something on social media. Not everyone needs to know _____. I am sure you can fill in the blank. PJC
Rabbi Yisroel Altein is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.