Parasha Ki Tissa

 On Wednesday morning, I woke up, opened my email, and my heart sank. There it was, a message   I did not want to see — Pages and pages with the words, “Mailer-Daemon Failure Notice.” My email had been hacked yet again. My privacy had been violated.  A message that I had not sent had been disseminated to everyone in my address book.   Then the messages from friends, colleagues, family began to arrive… “I think your email has been hacked.” “Thank you very much,” I wrote back, “I am taking care of it. Sorry.” It is not like I am not vigilant in protecting my computer. But apparently there are viruses, malware, spybots, Trojans and cookies that can evade all our best attempts to protect our privacy.  One of the emails I received was from a former congregant in Springfield, Massachusetts, Larry. Larry is owner and operator of Computer Care. He very kindly volunteered to rid my computer of whatever was causing the unpleasant problem.   I figured this would require many hours on the telephone with Larry. But no, by downloading a program on the internet, I was able to give Larry a code with which he was able, remotely, to gain access to my computer.  As I sat at my computer screen, my cursor mysteriously moved around my computer, clicking on various programs, opening some and shutting down others. It was like a ghost had taken over the keyboard.  He downloaded a program which searched out all of the foreign bodies that had taken up residence on my computer, essentially spying on me. At the end of the process, which took a couple of hours, Larry checked my computer again, pronounced it healthy, and left me a nice note, written on my Wordpad, instructing me how to avoid such infiltrations in the future.  He was even so kind as to print it out for me – on my own printer! Now Larry needed a special password to gain access to my computer from Massachusetts, and that password expires after every use, so there is no danger of him searching out my computer when I do not want him to. I just want to reassure everyone, just in case you are wondering…  He would never do that anyway. But there are apparently many ways for companies to do this without our knowing.  For example, Google has a computer go through every email we send to one another, searching for keywords with which to target us with ads. Your cable provider knows exactly what programs you watch and for how long.  Facebook can track on-line activity even after you have logged off of Facebook. At work, your browsing history is probably logged by members of your IT department.  “Supercookies” are unknowingly downloaded from websites we visit, then they collect information about our activities across multiple websites.  It is also possible to violate your own privacy with shocking results. Ashley Payne, as 24 year old English teacher in Georgia went on a European vacation in 2009 and posted over 700 pictures to her Facebook page. Ten of those had Ashley holding alcohol. She also posted that she was heading out to play a popular game at a local restaurant. The game had a profane word in it. An anonymous person, identifying themselves only as the parent of a student, emailed the principal with the pictures and complained about Ashley. The principal called her into the office and told her that she would either have to resign or she would be suspended. She resigned. She was mystified as to how these pictures made their way into the hands of a parent at her school. She had set her “privacy settings” on Facebook so that only her closest friends were able to see these pictures.  Her students had no access to them.  Apparently, that was not enough for her private life to be used against her. Now, what does Judaism have to say about privacy? It turns out, a great deal. I will give three examples. The first example deals with privacy from intrusion. Last week we learned that the robe of the High Priest was adorned with 72 silver bells on its hem. This meant that when the High Priest walked, he jingled!  The sages teach that this was to warn people when he approached, so that he could not sneak up on them. If they heard the High Priest coming, they had a warning. If they were doing anything about which the High Priest might disapprove, they could stop. In other words, the High Priest could not suddenly walk in and disturb their privacy.  The rabbis extended this to teach that one should knock on a door before one entered a room.  Even if it the door of one’s own home, they said, one should knock first before entering. The second example deals with visual privacy. In the Book of Numbers, the pagan prophet Balaam was sent by the King, Balak, to curse the Israelites. Balaam stands on a mountain overlooking the encampment of the Jewish people in the desert. He is unable to curse them. Instead, he recites the words that the sages later chose to open our services on Shabbat morning. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” The Talmud asks – what did Balaam notice about the Israelite encampment that caused him to bless it in this way?  The answer –He saw that their tent openings did not face each other.” The Israelites respected the privacy of one another. Balaam said, “These people are worthy to have G-d’s presence dwell among them.” The final example concerns privacy of one’s private mail. In around 1000 CE Rabeinu Gershom of Mainz on the River Rheine issued a series of rulings known as Takanot.  Rebeinu Gershom was the greatest rabbi of his generation, known as the “Light of the Exile”. In one ruling he decreed that a person could not read the mail of one’s neighbor without his permission. He extended this to privacy in commercial communications as well. Failure to abide by this ruling would result in a person’s excommunication from the Jewish people.  Judaism values privacy very highly because it protects, maintains and honors the dignity of each human being. It is important to reflect on what our Jewish tradition teaches us about the limits of intrusion into the lives of others.  Our tradition has much to offer as our society grapples with the new challenges to privacy that come with living in the digital age.        Shabbat Shalom