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The Modesty of Privacy

on Friday, May 25 2012. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
I once went to get my passport renewed and when they offered me a date for my renewal appointment I looked at my calendar and saw it would be Shavuos.  I told the woman I couldn’t come then because it would be the Jewish holiday of Shavuos.  She asked me to wait a minute and when she came back informed me that she checked with a “very Jewish” co-worker who said there is no Jewish holiday on that date and that she never heard of Shavuos.   

Of all of the Jewish holidays, Shavuos is probably the least well known and definitely the least observed among the Jewish community.   This is particularly sad in light of the theme of Shavuos, namely the camaraderie, kinship and bond our people forged as we received the Torah that unites us together as one.   Shavuos should be a time that we re-connect, re-bond and remember the fraternal nature of being a Jew.  

Rosh Hashana, Chanukah, and Pesach are very public holidays that are even noted among the non-Jewish world.  Companies take out ads with holiday greetings to the Jewish community and Presidents have released holiday messages directed at the Jewish people.  Meanwhile, Shavuos is the orphan holiday with our own people barely taking notice, let alone the world.  If only it wouldn’t be such a well-kept secret.

And yet, there is an aspect of the privacy and secrecy of Shavuos that is completely appropriate.  You see we come together to remember the experience of receiving the luchos, the tablets at Har Sinai and with them the whole Torah.  However, the luchos that were to last, that ones that survived and endured were not the original set that Hashem gave to Moshe publicly.  Rather, the luchos that remained intact and that protected our people at war were the ones that Hashem gave Moshe privately at a later time.  

The Midrash tells us that this is not a coincidence but in fact, is a reflection of a broader principle.  The Tanchuma teaches that because the first set of luchos were gifted at a very public ceremony with pomp and circumstance and the world watching, they were susceptible to ayin ha’rah, the jealousy and ill wishes of others.  The second set which was given privately in an understated, under the radar manner endured, because they were protected from the negative aspirations of some who would be watching.

Indeed, the Talmud tells us a fundamental rule – “ein ha’beracha sharuy elah b’davar ha’samuy min ha’ayin, blessing only comes to that which is private and protected from the public eye.”   We live in a world that encourages self expression, self promotion and the sharing publicly of every thought, idea,desire, experience and pictures that you have.  There is nothing wrong with sharing appropriately, but modesty demands that we have boundaries and that we maintain a healthy sense of privacy.    

A third of all divorce filings from 2011 contained the word Facebook.  Does that mean that Facebook is causing divorce?  Absolutely not.  What it means to me is that we need to be extremely judicious and discerning in deciding what we share publicly and what remains protected by the veil of privacy.  

Not every picture needs to be posted.  Not every stock market success needs to be flaunted.  Not every intimate experience needs to be shared, even with close friends offline.  People lock up their most expensive and valuable items in a vault or a safety deposit box unexposed to the world.  

As we celebrate the gift of the luchos, the tablets, and the amazing blessing of Torah, let’s remember which set lasted and why.  By embracing the modesty of privacy, may our blessings be protected and may we be poised to receive more and more.

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