By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I am of the generation that has grown up with computers and social media. But I’m torn by a recent article (Time magazine, Nov. 4) by Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of the founder of Facebook, who touts the virtues of sharing online the minute details of one’s private life. She differentiates between an older generation that feels identity on Facebook should just be professional and not overlap with one’s personal life, and those of my generation who have come of age in a world with social networks and know that “we don’t have that luxury anymore.”
Zuckerberg maintains that “business leaders of the future will be three-dimensional personalities whose lives, interests, hobbies and passions outside of work are documented and on display.” She says we should embrace this new world, and adds, “The time when your personal identity was a secret to your colleagues is over and done. And that is a good thing.”
Somehow, this doesn’t feel right to me. I’m not observant, but I do study Torah. In my limited understanding, what she writes seems to rub me the wrong way compared to the messages I get from Torah study — that one’s life should be more private. Am I misinterpreting my studies? Is she right, or am I? Or are we both right?
Sorry for the long question, and thank you for your input.
— Megan D.
You have touched a nerve in me, as I am greatly pained by the attitude expressed in that article. Sadly, much of what contemporary society is about, and what it values, is “looking good.” This is applied across the board, whether in dress, in relationships or even in the realm of religion; much of what many people do or perform is about making a good impression.
This is clearly the case with many politicians, who, rather than take a true leadership role as they should in their office, focus instead on the polls and what people want to hear. Very little in today’s society is about what’s inside: standing for truth, integrity, sincerity, caring and deep personal growth.
We learn from numerous Torah sources that the key to greatness is the trait called tznius, loosely translated as modesty. There isn’t a perfect translation for this word, and it often gets misconstrued, many thinking that it simply means to dress modestly, which is only one aspect of tznius. It refers to a deep, profound modesty in all areas of life. It means building an inner greatness which needs no approval from anyone, or even the awareness of anyone other than the individual, himself or herself. The prophet says, “ … What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk with modesty before your God?” (Micah 6:8)
The Al-mighty Himself teaches us this lesson in the way He reveals Himself in the world. This world is called olam, which shares the same root as ne’elam, or hidden. Although God reveals Himself, He hides much more than He reveals. All we see is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. True greatness only reveals its tip, while the vast majority remains submerged, under the radar. This is the reason, the Kabbalists explain that the blessings we recite to God start in the first person (Baruch Ata; Blessed are You) and finish in the third person (Who has created, and so on). This reflects the dual aspect of G-d’s connectedness. It is both revealed and hidden.
This trait has always been the hallmark of great Jewish scholars and leaders. As the prophet says, “ … with modest ones comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). My mentor, Rav S.Z. Auerbach, ob’m, was once asked who he considered to be a hidden tzaddik (pious individual) in our time. He immediately answered, “Of course, Rav Schach!” Those present laughed; who in the world didn’t know about the great Rav Schach, the elderly sage and leader of the entire Yeshiva world? Rav Auerbach then explained, “You don’t understand. What everyone knows about is only an inch of his greatness, with miles and miles hidden from the public eye!”
Jewish tradition is filled with the stories of men and women of towering greatness — greatness that was only revealed after they had left the world. This is when the stories of who they were and what they had discreetly done began to filter in, astounding everyone, even their own families. They had managed to do so much behind the scenes, with no fanfare or recognition.
Megan, your feelings are so correct. We absolutely need to have areas of our lives which retain the sanctity of privacy. When anything and everything is revealed before the eyes of the world, there remains no holiness to your existence. Let that which others see be that which spills over, out of the fullness of your inner greatness and your private, holy connection to God and to yourself.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org