We have all begun to live with the cameras. Whether we personally own surveillance cameras or we are just innocently walking down the street, they are unavoidable. Many shaalos have arisen and are daily becoming more serious regarding Shabbos and Yom Tov regarding these devices. This is not the time or venue to discuss those issues, but for those about to embark upon such a purchase, it is imperative to first discuss the technicalities with a morah hora’ah, since, as always, it is all in the details. However, my purpose this week is to reflect upon a new aspect of this phenomenon, namely what is happening in Newark, New Jersey, and the ramifications for us all. The New York Times reported on Monday (June 10th, page 1) that “the police have taken an extraordinary step that few, if any, departments in the country have pursued. They have opened up feeds from dozens of closed-circuit cameras to the public, asking viewers to assist the force by watching over the city and reporting anything suspicious.”
After the cameras were activated and citizens were alerted, one man reported his family describing where he was at a given time and exactly what was in his hand. Of course, “the advent of the program has provoked alarm among civil liberties groups and privacy advocates” about the “Pandora’s box” being opened in Newark. Perhaps predictably, the American Civil Liberties Union complained that “it’s not just Big Brother…there’s an infinite number of siblings here.”
What should our reaction, as Torah Jews, be to the new variation of being watched by unseen eyes? Furthermore, if it is not just the police, but everyone watching everyone, as our grandparents used to ask, “Is it good for the Jews or not?”
Since we are now well into the Pirkei Avos season, that is a good place to begin. The Mishnah (2:1) teaches: “Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin. Know what is above you: An observant eye, an attentive ear and all your deeds are recorded in a book.” Rishonim differ somewhat about the exact references in this Mishnah. For instance, the Me’iri teaches that “above” refers to the basic existence of Hashem. The eye and the ear refer to Divine providence – Hashem is watching and listening – and the book is of course the record that results in reward or punishment. Rabbeinu Yonah says that the eye refers to actions, the ear to words, and the book is our assurance that nothing is lost or forgotten. The Rama chose to begin his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch with the paramount principle of Hashem’s vigilant watchfulness over us. He speaks eloquently of the difference between how most people act when they think no one is watching compared to their demeanor in front of a king. “All the more so,” he reminds us, that we must always be on our best behavior when we realize that we are being observed by “the Great King, Hashem, Whose glory fills the entire universe.”
The story is told of the Chofetz Chaim (see, in part, Rabbi M.M. Yasher, the Chofetz Chaim 1:259; end of Sefer Shem Olam; Me’shel Ha’avos 1:229) that one day he was informed by an excited talmid that the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos had been proven correct by recent inventions. Recording and video machines that could chronicle man’s words and actions for posterity had been devised. Instead of smiling with joy, the great tzaddik surprisingly began to cry. “Rebbe, I’m so sorry,” the Radin graduate apologized. “I thought rebbe would be pleased to hear the kiddush Hashem that the Torah has been corroborated.
“You don’t understand,” the Chofetz Chaim gently explained. “For generations, over millennia, Klal Yisroel accepted the words of Chazal and did not require proof. Now that the generations have declined, periodically Hashem must remind us of the eternal truth of the Torah, but the need for that evidence is not something to celebrate. It is merely a reflection of how far we have fallen.”
The Baal Shem Tov (Keser Shem Tov 22:3; 53:4) saw this descent of man’s greatness in the Mishnah itself. He lamented that “the observant eye” referred to the fact that Adam Harishon was able to see from one end of the world to the other and understand the secrets of the universe. The “attentive ear” was able to hear the “announcements of the heavenly Court and the bas kol that emerges from Har Sinai every day.” He concluded that the “recorded deeds” are those that sully and besmirch the shining neshamah we have all been given.
Perhaps the Baal Shem Tov was also forewarning us that all the technologies of the future carry limitless possibilities of reminding us of Hashem’s constant providence, while also endangering our souls at the same time. The latest iteration of this duality is the Newark innovation of allowing everyone to spy on everyone else. Of course, there is an incredible incursion into human privacy and dignity in this governmental intervention. But given the recognition that it is humankind’s actions that have driven this edict, we Torah Jews should take this as just another sign that Hashem is reminding us that He was there first, watching us and over us as well.
In truth, this lesson was taught long ago in the parsha we will read in just a few weeks. A good deal of Parshas Balak is about the faulty vision of Bilam. Rashi (24:3) reveals that Bilam became blind in one eye because he could not understand the things he had prophetically been shown. His level of depravity was such that he could not fully view the holy matters that are sacred to Am Yisroel, and so he was deprived of part of his vision. There’s certainly something positive in realizing ever more clearly that just as the GPS is guiding us from above, there is an eye and ear sending signals almost everywhere. But, being frail mortals, each of these innovations carries a Bilam-like attendant danger with it.
The Tiferes Shlomo of Radomsk offered somewhat of a path to deal with these almost bi-polar spiritual conflicts. He reinterpreted the words “da mah lemaalah mimecha – know what is above you” as “know that what is above you comes from you.” What he meant by this was apparently an application of another teaching of the Baal Shem Tov. Dovid Hamelech says, “Hashem tzilcha is your protective Shade at your right hand” (Tehillim 121:6). The Baal Shem Tov explained that “just as shade imitates what we do, so does Hashem, so to speak, follow our lead.”
It would seem that the more Hashem feels that we need reminders that He is watching us, the more oppressive and invasive this process will become. We certainly cannot tell anyone else what to do. But to the extent that we ourselves follow the words of the Rama at the very beginning of Shulchan Aruch, constantly being aware of Hashem’s presence in our lives, perhaps we will spare some of the artificial memoranda hanging from the skies in our cities. Finally, we would do well to remember the story Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l always used to tell about one of his visits to Vilna. He was shown the official pinkas recording important municipal events in that storied city. The Gaon’s rebbetzin and another woman went fundraising for the poor every Erev Shabbos. One day, the rebbetzin’s friend pointed across the street to a certain philanthropist who was walking. “Let’s go ask him for a donation,” she whispered. They did and the generous man responded accordingly. Many years later, the two righteous ladies made a pact that whichever of them passes away first would come to the other, informing her of how it is in heaven. The rebbetzin’s friend passed away first and kept her word. “You should know,” she reported, “that we are not allowed to reveal the secrets of heaven to those below, but since I promised, they are allowing me to tell you the following. No action, word or even thought is ever forgotten up here. Even that time when I pointed to the man from whom we received a donation was counted as a zechus for me in heaven.”
To the extent that we remember that absolute standard in our lives, Hashem will surely spare us from mere mortals spying upon us from cameras in the sky, as long as we don’t forget the ultimate video in Shomayim above.