Vayikra: Secret Weapon

Debbie told her co-worker Susan that Debbie intended to leave her job soon. Debbie didn’t act as if this was confidential and did not ask Susan to keep it so.  Susan assumed that Debbie had told others, including Debbie’s boss. 

When Susan’s boss asked her to work with Debbie on a new project, Susan mentioned Debbie’s expected departure.  But Debbie had not told her boss of her plan, nor was it common knowledge.  Susan’s boss informed Debbie’s boss, who questioned Debbie and identified Susan as the information source. Debbie was furious at Susan for revealing her “confidence” and complained bitterly to their acquaintances. 

Susan was embarrassed by the unpleasantness at work, hurt by Debbie’s accusation of impropriety, upset that Debbie was angry with her, and worried that her reputation had been harmed.  She explained herself to Debbie and to both bosses, but in the end no one felt relieved.  Debbie forwarded Susan’s explanatory/semi-apologetic/semi-defensive email to some of their friends, and when Susan found out, it was her turn to feel invaded.  Neither their friendship nor Susan’s reputation at work nor among their mutual acquaintances ever fully recovered.  What a mess, all because Debbie told her secret!

This week, we begin to reread the book of Leviticus (Vayikra).  Its first sentence is:

“And He (G-d) called to Moses, and G-d spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, Speak unto the Children of Israel and say to them...

From this verse our sages derived the lesson that a person generally has no right to repeat what someone tells her about himself without explicit permission to do so.  (B. Yoma 4b.)  Note that in the Torah verse, G-d related information to Moses in the tent of meeting (i.e. privately), and it was permissible for Moses to repeat it only because G-d gave him explicit permission to do so.  (B’air Mayim Chayim 2:27).

We can’t know all the harm that repeating private information may cause, including conflict, embarrassment, damaged relationships, financial loss, diminished reputation, etc.  Nor should one reveal one’s own secrets, as doing so likewise runs the substantial risk of these results, not just to oneself, but to others.

Debbie should have kept her secret to herself.  If she just “had” to tell it, choosing someone not connected to her workplace would have avoided the many resulting problems.  If she did tell Susan, she should have asked her to keep the information confidential – although this still would have left both Debbie “at risk” and Susan in a potential conflict at work.  Nor should Debbie have complained about Susan to their mutual acquaintances, and she certainly should not have forwarded Susan’s email to them without Susan’s permission. [These days, forwarding emails without permission is one of the most common breaches of privacy].

Susan was placed in a very difficult situation, but perhaps could have delayed further discussion of the job assignment with her boss until she had alerted Debbie of the need for disclosure.  Had Debbie then not agreed to either immediately make the disclosure herself or allow Susan to tell Susan’s boss, Susan could have honestly told her boss that “there may be a potential problem taking a new work assignment with Debbie, can I get back to you about it shortly?” (Or “there may be … but I may be wrong, and anyway, if so, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to be the one to reveal it.)   While this would have been very uncomfortable and perhaps problematic for Susan, it would have safeguarded Debbie’s secret, Susan’s reputation, and perhaps protected Susan and her employer from entering a likely unproductive work pairing.   

The following related points about Jewish ethics are related in Zelig’s Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor:

The Talmud relates that a certain student revealed a secret that was twenty-two years old.  Rabbi Ami expelled him from the Bais Hamedrash.  “This person is a revealer of secrets,” he declared. (Sanhedrin 31a). 

A person once confided a secret to a wise man.  The person asked, “Do you understand?”  “Yes, answered the wise man, “I understand but I already forgot it.” (Menoras Hamaor 2:4)

A person should be careful not to disclose his own secrets to others. Before someone reveals a secret, he is the secret’s master.  But once a person reveals his secret, the secret is his master, for he lives in fear that it will become known to others. (ibid.)

A wise man once said, “If I tell a secret to someone else and he repeats it, I do not blame him; I blame myself.  If I could not conceal my own secret, how could I expect someone else to conceal it?” (ibid.)

There are a few instances when revealing someone else’s, or your own, secret is warranted, but these are rare and extreme cases.  Other than a true emergency, it would be best to seek ethical advice from a knowledgeable, neutral party before making any such disclosure.  Judaism teaches us, keep secrets!  

Shabbat Shalom! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3