Taking What isn’t Ours: Yom Kippur 5774

It’s not literally a skeleton in my closet, but I was still upset to find it hanging there. A few months ago I was taking out a jacket and noticed that a wood hanger had the name of a Jerusalem hotel on it. Honestly, I never meant to take a souvenir hanger. Probably I left a similar one of my own behind in its place, but there it is, a hot hanger in my closet. When I visit Jerusalem later this year, I plan to bring it back.

Do you, perhaps, have any “souvenirs” from hotels or other places that you have visited around the world? There is a line between ephemeral items like a bar of soap or ballpoint pen that your hosts may have expected or even encouraged you to take, and larger things like bathrobes that are expensive and meant to stay put. Many hotels now offer such items for sale, not so subtly informing their guests that robes and other durable goods are not being offered as freebies.

Jewish ethics set a high bar for even “borrowing” the property of others without permission. In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 43b), the Rabbis debate whether such borrowing is a serious crime or a misdemeanor, but the medieval codes call it simple theft. I remember one teacher giving a mussar (ethics) talk in which he accused all of us yeshivah students of being thieves. He’d noticed people picking up pencils to make notes without asking first to whom they belonged. “You’re all thieves,” he thundered. Are we all thieves?

On Yom Kippur, we repeatedly confess, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu” (we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen). There you have it, our abject confession: we are all thieves. Of course, there is nothing so simple about this admission. Most of us have not intentionally stolen physical property from others, but that is setting the bar too low. Mistakes like mine happen, and we need to take better care. Intellectual property is often more valuable than even jewels, and yet we are quite casual with the appropriation of other people’s ideas and expressions. We rationalize that this is a “victimless crime,” since the owner still keeps his or her own property and may not even notice what was taken. Ultimately, every person’s ideas are influenced by the work of others, and it can be impossible to demarcate the boundary between legitimate adaptation and illegitimate imitation. Rationalizations abound.

Moreover, today’s trend is toward “open source” creation of content. Stewart Brand first declared in 1984 that “information wants to be free,” but even he acknowledged that there is a constant struggle between proprietary knowledge and free access, between control and collaboration. Perhaps the argument that “everyone does it” has eroded our respect for intellectual property, but on Yom Kippur we should think again about how to honor the ideas of others, seeking permission and giving credit where it is due.

Aside from issues of ownership, mores are also shifting about the propriety of sharing personal information. Our society used to place a premium on privacy, but today we are expected to view ourselves as a “brand,” with our social capital dependent on how many “friends,” links, and “likes” we accrue. It can seem prudish to refrain from putting personal photos and accounts up on social media, and many people feel pressured to reveal information that used to be considered private. Transparency has become a regnant value of our culture; modesty and discretion have suffered accordingly. But not everything important ought to be seen. There is mystery and power in that which is hidden. The medieval Rabbenu Gershom issued an edict banning people from opening the private mail of others. We would do ourselves a favor in being more discreet about what we share and what we seek to find out about other people.

On Yom Kippur, we read about the service of the high priest. We will solemnly recite the steps of his worship, from the elaborate rituals of washing and prostration to the sprinkling of sacrificial blood. In our mind’s eye, we can see him entering the Holy of Holies and praying on behalf of the whole house of Israel. But that’s just it—in our imagination we can see it, but in reality, the service of the high priest was invisible to the People and even to other priests. The priest was glorious when he came out of the Holy of Holies, but that was in part because he had been hidden for a tense time while representing the nation.

As we stand before God, seeking atonement, we straddle a divide between public and private presence. We sing and sway together with each other, chanting “Anu amekha, v’atah Eloheinu” (We are your People, and You are our God).We stand together then, but we each are also alone, in private conversation and confession before our Creator. In each aspect of our prayer, let us be honest and strong, humbled and then joyous as we seek atonement. Alone and together, may we merit to be inscribed and sealed for a new year of life and of peace.