Thursday, March 6, 2014

A time to be silent, and a time to speak up

A thought on Parshat Vayikra:

Our parshah takes a strong stand in favour of confidentiality. The opening verses relate, “And G-d called to Moshe, and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, to go tell. Speak to the Children of Israel, and tell them…” Troubled by the doubled “go tell,” our sages explained that the duplication teaches us, “that one may not repeat something told to him, unless he is told, ‘Go tell.’“ (Talmud, Yoma 4b)

Certainly, the need for confidentiality is clear; as Sefer haChinuch (mitzvah 236) notes, gossip causes quarreling and strife. However, we might be forgiven for wondering why G-d personally violated this principle. When three visitors informed Avraham that his wife Sarah would birth a baby, Sarah overheard, and laughed. She said, “After I have been worn out, will I be rejuvenated? And my master is old!” G-d then asked Avraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Can it be that I will give birth? And I am old!’ Is anything beyond G-d?... “ (Bereishit 18:12-14) Why did G-d fail to honour His principle of confidentiality?

We might gain some understanding by studying a conflict between a halachic obligation and the Rules of Professional Conduct (2000) of the Law Society of Upper Canada, regarding permission to break confidentiality.

According to the Law Society’s Rule 2.03(3), “Where a lawyer believes upon reasonable grounds that there is an imminent risk to an identifiable person or group of death or serious bodily harm, including serious psychological harm that substantially interferes with health or well-being, the lawyer may disclose, pursuant to judicial order where practicable, confidential information where it is necessary to do so in order to prevent the death or harm, but shall not disclose more information than is required.” Two points are worth noting here: (1) The lawyer may break confidentiality to  prevent serious harm to health, but not to prevent financial loss; (2) Even regarding saving a life, the lawyer may inform, but is not required to do so.

Contrast this with the Rambam’s position (Sefer haMitzvot, Lo Taaseh 297); he warns against “weakness” in rescuing from “danger of death or financial loss.” Based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a), Rambam includes financial loss as grounds for action, and views intervention as a requirement. Therefore, modern halachic authorities rule that one must break confidentiality in order to save a person from physical or financial harm. [See Chafetz Chaim, Rechilut 9. Note: A discussion of endangering a career to avert another person’s financial or physical harm is beyond the scope of this article.]

The Law Society honours confidentiality over rescue because Ontario law does not require any individual to save any other individual from harm, unless a special relationship of caring for the victim already exists. In contrast, as explained by Rambam, halachah does require that we rescue others. Therefore, our responsibility to look after each other overrides our great respect for privacy and confidentiality.

This duty to rescue may explain why G-d spoke with Avraham about Sarah’s laughter: G-d broke confidentiality to rescue Sarah from denial of Divine omnipotence. As we see in numerous mitzvot, such as tochachah and lifnei iver, the Torah requires intervention to save a person from spiritual harm. Therefore, G-d spoke with Avraham. Avraham was already well-established as the Divine messenger; from the moment when Avraham and Sarah journeyed to Canaan (Bereishit 12:1), to their move to Chevron (ibid. 13:14), to the re-naming of Sarah (ibid. 17:15),    G-d issued each instruction to Avraham,  and Avraham relayed it to Sarah. Admittedly, the choice of Avraham as prophet is confusing, given that G-d told Avraham that Sarah possessed greater insight and he was to follow her word. (ibid. 21:12) Nonetheless, Avraham is the prophet, and G-d breaks confidentiality in order to have His prophet educate His people.

The combination of our parshah’s imperative for confidentiality, and our duty to rescue, precipitates a difficult decision: Do we err on the side of confidentiality, or on the side of rescue? Even if we conceal the worst, as G-d did in relaying Sarah’s speech, how do we decide whether it is a time to be silent, or a time to speak? (Kohelet 3:7)

We might apply five rules offered by the Chafetz Chaim (Rechilut 9:2):
 Make certain that the danger you wish to avert is real and substantive;
 Do not exaggerate;
 Act to help the victim, not to harm the other;
 Seek other methods of rescue first;
 Avoid language which could cause collateral damage to the subject.

May we always honour our duty to rescue, but with a firm commitment to our parshah’s value of confidentiality.

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