A few years ago, I visited the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation’s most secretive organization, about 20 minutes or so outside Washington, DC. Well, I didn’t actually visit it. I was right outside – my business was in the vicinity – but stumbled upon it. It is a massive complex surrounded by fences, barbed wire and guard posts. What struck me was that the parking lot contained, without exaggeration, thousands of cars crunched together, and I marveled that the NSA with so many thousands of workers could do its work without leaks or breaches of security.
Hello, Edward Snowden.
Snowden, who presents as such a weird duck that one wonders how he got a sensitive job at all (he didn’t work in that Maryland facility), has taken the liberty – as many leftists do – of harming US security and revealing secrets because of the undetermined and inscrutable cause for which he is fighting. For sure, the reality that private conversations can be monitored and private emails read and intercepted came as a shock to the American civil system that prides itself on personal space and the right to privacy. Granted, government officials claim that no calls/emails of private citizens were invaded, but, understandably, no one really believes them. Usually, it takes time for abuses to surface, if they do at all, and these allegations are simple to deny and difficult to prove. There is some poetic justice in the “most transparent administration of all time,” as the Obama-nation proclaimed it would be, looking to justify its spying when it lambasted prior administrations for doing the same and less. And the IRS scandal, which really pried into and interfered with American lives, is still awaiting its liberal John Dean to blow the lid off the cover-up. Is there anyone in the administration with a conscience, at long last?
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care about the NSA. My life is not that interesting that the government should want to unleash spies to target me and probe my phone calls (few and brief) and emails (even fewer and briefer). I have long felt that the passive but persistent encroachments on personal freedom affect only the criminals, not the law-abiding, in which group I cast myself. The streets of most American cities are loaded with cameras (only the red-light cameras threaten me). Wherever we walk – subway or stores – we are watched by cameras. None of that bothers me; I am not about to mug or shoplift.
The more aggressive and useless invasions of privacy still grate, especially the airport security personnel. It is senseless to search every 75 year-old named Agnes when the real targets are 25 year-olds named Ahmed. Much of it, in any event, is security theater that provides the illusion of security but mainly serves to protect higher-ups from accusations of negligence if, God forbid, something goes wrong. “We followed our standard procedure of strip-searching nonagenarians with hip replacements and we dutifully confiscated the water bottles from screaming children. We must have missed something in that group carrying their prayer rugs who were whining about racial profiling.”
In any event, the Israeli satirical web site Latma ( had it right when it “reported” a few weeks ago that “Americans are very upset to learn that the government has been spying on their private lives, even before they have a chance to post about it on Facebook.” There is something bizarre about a nation of emotional exhibitionists baring their every secret (and more) in the public domain, and then griping about a loss of privacy. Of course, the government has no right to intrude, and every American possesses a constitutional right to make an absolute fool of himself/herself by reporting on the inanities of their lives and sharing every stray, incomplete thought in incomplete and ungrammatical sentences. But a little self-awareness is also appropriate.
Privacy unappreciated and underutilized tends to dissipate, and in the US, fame and fortune are the rewards for those who can be the most public about what is usually most private. Let us not shed crocodile tears for those whose inner sanctum is breached by others before they have a chance to shatter the walls themselves. Privacy was always a cherished value, lauded by the Torah that grants everyone four ells to himself, and castigates those who reveal themselves or allow others access to their intimate lives. The beginning of Masechet Bava Batra discusses “hezek re’iyah,” the harm that accrues to a person when others can see him and his boundaries are invaded by the sight of others. But there can be no “hezek re’iyah” if we willfully put our lives on display.
Tzniut – modesty, humility – is not only about clothing, but most simply about privacy, about carving out areas in life in which only one’s closest and dearest are admitted. It is a lost value for several reasons, but primarily because the accessibility of our lives to others has led many to get less attention, not more, and immodesty in all its forms – verbal, physical, material – is often just a cry for attention. As every petulant child knows, even negative attention is attention.
A Snowden toils in obscurity until he realizes the acclaim and riches that will be garnered by public exposure of secrets and the betrayal of his country. At least Jonathan Pollard – who should have been released yesterday, ten or twenty years ago, or tomorrow – passed classified secrets to a US ally – Israel – but did not intend to harm America. Snowden did not reveal his secrets to benefit anyone but simply to sow mistrust, weaken the United States and curry favor with anti-American forces across the world. I wonder how he will be treated if he is ever caught.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 31a) states that it was reported that a disciple revealed a secret kept for 22 years in a certain study hall. Rav Ami kicked him out, saying “this one betrays secrets.” Today, he would go on the talk-show circuit. But secrecy, privacy and modesty are the virtues of refined people. Rashi (Bamidbar 24:5) notes that Bil’am perceived the majesty of the camp of Israel in that their doors did not face each other, so no one could peer into another’s tent.
How quaint. How modest. How beautiful. And how missed is that world.

4 responses to “Secrets

  1. Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, chapter 17, paragraph 3:
    A Jew should do all his good deeds in secret.
    Charity in secret. Relations with his wife in secret.
    And if he does thus, he is loved by the Omnipresent.

  2. Mishlei, chapter 25, verse 9:
    “… and the secret of another, do not reveal.”

    Rashi: In addition to not revealing
    the secrets of other people, also do not reveal
    the foolish deeds of their ancestors.

  3. Metsudath David commentary on
    Mishlei, chapter 20, verse 19:

    Do not befriend a person whose nature is to reveal secrets,
    who is not able to control himself to conceal a matter.

  4. Frances Smith

    We seem to live in a more and more attention craving society with actions and possessions screaming, “look at me”. The bazaar consequence is public ridicule and embarrassment for the exhibitionist from the more self-controlled and self-confident.