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Chayei Sarah

March 23, 2006

The Public and the Private

By Peggy de Prophetis

While reading this week’s parashah, Chayei Sarah, I was struck by the contrast between things that should happen in public and things that should be allowed to happen only in private.

In Bava Batra 2a and b, there is a discussion about whether partners who live in a courtyard and who agree to build a wall, do so in order to prevent visual trespass. The question raised is whether or not visual trespass is damaging. And there are other places in our tradition where the issue of personal privacy is expressed. For example, in Exodus 28:33’35 it says that the high priest’s robe should
have a golden bell so that the people will know when he enters the Temple. From this our rabbis deduced that we should warn people before we enter a room lest we come upon them doing or saying something that should be private.

In this week’s parashah, Abraham needs a place to bury his wife Sarah. Even though the action takes place in the land that was promised to the Israelites by God, Abraham is not in a position to take advantage of the divine promise. He is a ‘ger v’toshav,’ (Genesis 23:4), a resident alien. So he is forced into the position of negotiating with the Hittites for the Cave of Machpelah and its land. We read, ‘Then Abraham bowed low before the people of the land and spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land . . . .’ (Genesis 23:12’12) He conducted negotiations openly, before ‘the people of the land,’ in seeking to purchase a burial place for his wife.

The witnessing in Genesis 23 is mentioned five times, in verses 10 11, 13, 16, 18. Sometimes the Hittites witness with their eyes, sometimes with their ears. The eyes and ears are appropriately matched to the kind of evidence being presented. For example, the ears hear the conversation and the eyes watch the transfer of title.

We learn from this that both the eyes and the ears were considered necessary to achieve the fullest possible understanding. We learn this too from the Book of Job. Job acknowledges his increased understanding of God’s ways when he says,

‘Formerly I had heard you with my ears,
But now I have seen you with my eyes.’
(Job 42:5’6)

But the use of eyes and ears can be harmful, even abusive.

Today we live in a society where we have virtually no privacy. Most of our personal information is stored somewhere in the virtual universe. As a result, we have problems both great and small. We have identity theft, insurance company access to confidential genetic testing, and a barrage of junk mail targeted to our preferences as
expressed by our use of credit cards. Because of society’s increasing reliance on technology, this situation does not look like it will get any better in the near future.

‘For everything there is a time,’ we read in Ecclesiastes (3:1), and then the author gives us examples: ‘A time for being born and a time to die, a time for planting and a time for uprooting that which was planted’ (3:2), etc. To this famous list I would add: There is a time for respecting privacy, and there is a time for doing things in public.

We can resolve to use our eyes and ears with respect for privacy’for there is a time for privacy. For example, the next time we stumble on an obviously private conversation, let’s move out of earshot. Before entering a hospital room to visit the sick, let’s knock and wait to be invited in. When waiting on line for registration at a doctor’s office,
we can maintain a distance from the preceding patient. For those of us who are tempted to read over someone else’s shoulder when we have no reading material of our own, we should resist that temptation.

On the other hand, remembering Abraham’s concern that ‘the people of the land’ hear his intention to purchase a burial site for Sarah, we can resolve to use our eyes and ears to further justice and alleviate suffering’for there is a time for doing things publicly. If we see a crime or witness an accident, we should speak out. If a blind person is having difficulty walking on a crowded sidewalk, let’s offer to help. We should offer a pregnant woman or a very old person our seat on the bus or subway. When we hear an anti-Semitic remark, we should challenge it.

Yes, one should ‘revere God and observe His commandments, for this applies to all humanity.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13) And the sensitive person knows when to respect privacy and when to act publicly’this, too, applies to all humanity.