Many years ago, there lived a holy man who was known to have the ability to read other people’s thoughts. One day a student asked him, “Rabbi, how can you say your prayers in public around all these people with their unholy thoughts? Aren’t you distracted from your prayers by knowing what’s in their minds?”
The rabbi replied, “When I was a child my parents taught me not to look where I wasn’t supposed to.”
Why do we think that “getting close to someone” means we have to know their every private thought? We’re insulted when those we love won’t tell us everything. We accuse them of “hiding” from us, and we’re hurt. But if you try to peek behind the curtains of someone else’s privacy, you won’t get any closer to that person. Quite the opposite: you’ll become estranged. If a person doesn’t want to reveal a part of himself or herself, then to look there is wrong.
When we are invited to become a part of someone’s life, we have to be careful not to violate the other person’s privacy. The respect that we have for another person’s privacy–however that person has chosen to define it–enables us to nurture an intimate relationship. As soon as we trespass where we haven’t been invited, we destroy the boundaries and dissipate the intimacy. In such an environment, our relationships cannot flourish.
Jewish law has great respect for privacy. If you want to build a home overlooking another home, you cannot do it in such a way that you would be able to see into your neighbor’s courtyard from your window. It would be an invasion of privacy. Gossiping about others or making judgments about their behavior is also prohibited because it means you are looking into an aspect of their existence that is not open to your scrutiny. It’s private, between them and G-d; and if you judge them, you’re trespassing.
When a poor man knocks at your door and says, “I’m hungry,” and your first thought is, “Why can’t you get a job?”, you’ve invaded his privacy. Why would you need to know why he can’t get a job? He didn’t come to discuss his inabilities or bad habits; he came to discuss his hunger. If you want to do something about it, feed him. But don’t probe where you’re not invited. Don’t look behind the curtain he so carefully put up to protect himself.
When we have borders, we express our feelings only when it’s appropriate and do not express them when it isn’t. We do not impose ourselves on others.
When we have no borders, the way we conduct our lives depends on how we feel at the time. That’s not sanity; that creates insecurity. But thinking well of ourselves won’t make us feel more secure. We will feel secure when we know what we ought to be doing.
There’s an old saying, “Don’t laugh at a funeral or cry at a wedding.” In different words, it means: “Establish borders with your feelings and your behavior.”
You might say, “I’m an honest person. When I’m sad, I’m sad. What am I supposed to do, make believe I’m happy? I’m too virtuous for that.”
Well, even honesty has its borders. There are times when your sadness, your happiness, and your honesty are all irrelevant – for example, at a funeral. At someone else’s funeral, expressing your happiness is totally inappropriate and unwelcome, out of its border.
At someone else’s wedding, you’re supposed to do what they expect you to do, what they need you to do, and that is dance and enjoy. Don’t say, “But I’m the honest type,” because no one is talking about you right now. It’s not your wedding. Even if it were, you shouldn’t cry. You invited guests who came to celebrate. If you start crying, you’re out of line. Being out of line means not recognizing borders.
If we have nothing that says our life is described by certain limits, that we may live within these borders, that we may not live outside those borders, then we have no borders except our own egos.
When G-d created the world, it was part of His plan to give everything a limit, everything its borders. By giving us borders, G-d gave us a true sense of security, not through artificial self-esteem or unlimited ego but through morality.