Millions of Americans have just been shocked to learn that there really is no such thing as privacy anymore.
The United States government admitted that it has been collecting information on our telephone conversations for the past seven years. They know who we called, how long we were on the phone with them - and we can only guess how much more they discovered about us from the records they requisitioned from the major telephone carriers.
Surveillance has become an undeniable part of our lives. With the help of modern technology there is almost nothing that can remain secret anymore. “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” George Orwell wrote in his classic prophetic work, 1984. What we say and what we do is all too often accessible to others, even when we don’t voluntarily post it on Facebook or tweet about it on Twitter.
I am not prepared to take a stand on governmental eavesdropping. I recognize how the threat of terrorism has forced us to make hard but oft-times necessary compromises with the ideal of personal freedoms and right to privacy. Yet, I also realize the danger inherent in democratically elected leaders having access to the kind of information they can readily misuse to gain illegitimate power.
But I am profoundly intrigued by one aspect of the furor now sweeping the country in the aftermath of the government’s admission that total privacy is no longer a fact of contemporary life. Countless people are not only appalled by the notion that others may know the secrets of their personal lives but afraid of what this knowledge may mean to the way in which they are perceived and how they will be forced to curtail their activities. And yet from a spiritual perspective the idea that everything we do is known by a higher power and recorded for posterity is a fundamental assumption that was supposed to guide us long before modern technology made its implementation possible.
When Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi, author of the Mishnah, wanted to offer a succinct prescription for leading a good and honorable life, he wrote: “Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and that all your deeds are always being inscribed in a book” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1).
From a biblical perspective, the days of our lives are the pages of a book we write while we are here on earth. Its contents are completely known to the Creator and there will come a time when we will be held accountable for every one of its entries. It is far more than a diary; it is an unvarnished testament to our successes as well as our failures. It is the legacy we leave for the future that testifies to the worth-whileness of our existence. It includes everything in which we take pride but also all those things from which, in retrospect, we turn away with rueful embarrassment.
The Midrash offers a beautiful insight into the actions of prominent biblical heroes. It tells us that had Reuben, Jacob’s first born son, known that the Torah would record that he saved Joseph from the pit into which he was thrown by his brothers, he would’ve done far more than simply rescue him; he would have carried Joseph on his shoulders the entire great distance to his father. Had Aaron brother of Moses, known that his selfless acceptance of God’s appointment of his younger brother as leader of the Jewish people instead of himself would be acknowledged by a verse in the book of Exodus, he would have demonstrated his approval of the divine will by singing and dancing with timbrels. Had Boaz known that his kindness to Ruth by offering her six measures of grain would become part of a biblical text he would have feted her with stuffed calves and delicacies.
The point is profound. Even the good that we do would be enhanced multifold if we felt that it would not remain secret. And in the eyes of God there is no such thing as a private life, whether our actions make it into the book He authored or the one each one of us writes for eternity.
God’s constant surveillance, unlike human spying, is meant as reminder of our mission to make our lives meaningful.
Our ancestors knew nothing of the technological threats to privacy. They could hardly imagine Internet hacking, cell phone data mining, spying cameras or any of the other myriad ways in which it is now possible to be privy to the most personal details of another person. Yet those guided by faith lived every moment with the certainty that nothing they did could avoid being seen by the One to whom they owed total allegiance. And this awareness, far from being viewed as an ever present and undesirable intrusion on their privacy, was considered a blessing that allowed them to constantly strive to give priority to their better selves.
To know that God is watching everything we do encourages us to lead ethical lives that won’t shame us in the eyes of our creator. God’s constant surveillance, unlike human spying, is meant as reminder of our mission to make our lives meaningful by His standards and to spur us to holiness even when He is the only one taking notice of what we’re doing.
One of the beautiful stories told about the famous Rabbi known as the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, tells of his being given a lift, as he wearily trudged from one town to another, by a carriage driver who had no idea of the identity of his passenger. Riding through a deserted area bounded by lush and unguarded fruit trees, the driver stopped to steal part of the crop and decided to enlist the aid of his fellow traveler. “I’m going to pick as much as I can and I ask you just to do me one small favor. If you see anyone looking, please call out to me immediately so we can flee and I won’t get caught.” No sooner did the carriage driver begin his illegal task than the rabbi began to shout, “He sees, he sees!”
Frightened, the carriage driver rushed back to his seat, hurried off and asked the rabbi, “By the way, where is the one who saw?”
The rabbi’s response was simply to point heavenward and, giving emphasis to his first word, he repeated, “He saw.”
Believers have always known the reality that nothing is ever totally private. There is a great deal of truth in the response of Google’s Eric Schmidt who years ago told an interviewer, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”