Shining a light on anonymity

Recognizing the righteous and stopping the bullies.

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander ,

Flash 90

What does our Torah have to say about the modern scourge of cyberbullying? How could its ancient words possibly be relevant to our digital age of social media?

The words of the Torah are, perhaps, ancient, but they are timely in every generation. We can always find new insights that are relevant to our modern lives.

In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, we read

“ארור מכה רעהו בסתר”

“Cursed is the person who damages his friend in secret”

Commentaries have struggled with this verse. Why is the word ‘בסתר’, ‘in secret’, necessary? Isn’t it just as wrong to hurt someone in public?

Let’s look at this verse through the prism of today’s social media shaming culture, in which any individual can be damaged, defamed, even destroyed by nameless, faceless bullies.

Whereas traditional bullying used to be face-to-face, today’s weapon of choice is the keyboard, with camouflage offered by a screen.

Because of this physical disconnect from their victims, studies show that cyberbullies exhibit less remorse than physical bullies.

But the victims’ shame can be far greater, as with each ‘share’ and ‘like’ by people all over the world, their damage grows exponentially. Youth who endure cyberbullying can experience a decline in academic performance and difficulties at home, and they are also at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide.

With this in mind, let’s return to our verse and translate it through the lens of contemporary life: “Cursed is the person who uses the cloak of social media to destroy the identity, the humanity of another”.

The word בסתר – in secret – takes on an entirely new, contemporary meaning.

I’d like to add an additional perspective to this verse. This week we sat shiva for yet another victim of terror: Rabbi Shai Ohayon [1]; father of 4, beloved husband and son who dedicated his life to Torah study after serving in the IDF.

Rabbi Ohayon was a man who lived ‘בסתר’, “in secret” — an anonymous man dedicated to performing good deeds about which we are only learning now, after his murder.

On the one hand, we live in a time in which all one has to do is Google someone’s name to find out everything about them.

But at the same time, we know so little about who they really, truly are.

Perhaps in a socially-distanced, safe way, it is time for us to reach out and learn about the people around us, so that no one lives ‘בסתר’- alone and in darkness.

We need to break down digital barriers and re-establish human contact, bringing the cyberbullying phenomenon out of the shadows.

We should find out which of our neighbors need help and companionship, especially during this pandemic when so many elderly people and individuals in quarantine are being found dead, alone in their homes.

And we should allow ourselves to get to know the stories of the anonymous heroes like Rabbi Ohayon that live amongst us, so that we can be illuminated and inspired by them.

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone (, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He was formerly Vice President of Yeshiva University for University and Community Life and before that, Dean of the David Mitzner Dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.


[1] More about Rabbi Ohayon Hy"d from Sivan Rahav-Meir: In his memory

Translation by Yehoshua Siskin

Rav Shai Ohayon, aged 39 and the father of four, was murdered one week ago in Petah Tikva. "He loved everyone and everyone loved him," his father-in-law said in reaction to the tragedy.

His neighbor Evyatar Cohen eulogized him in these words: "He was a humble person, quiet and pleasant to everyone. I only now learned that a brilliant Torah scholar was living among us. I was just told that he had recently passed the difficult qualifying exams taken in order to become chief rabbi of a city. It's a heavy loss not just for his neighborhood, but for the entire nation of Israel."

I heard an interview with his close friend, Yosef David Mugrabi, who was his hevruta (Talmud study partner) for 11 years. Mugrabi mentioned the last conversation they had as Shai was getting on a bus: "Shai said that he was praying that people would understand Uman is not just about parties and dancing." (A multitude of Israelis and Jews from around the world gather each year in Uman, in the Ukraine, observing Rosh Hashanah at the graveside of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav.)

It seems to me that this prayer of Rav Ohayon was deeply meaningful. Public relations surrounding the annual pilgrimmage to Uman are terrible. It's true that you have fringe elements among the visitors, but we are talking about tens of thousands of participants who arrive for a communal prayer that is extremely important to them.

It is certainly understandable why it is necessary to cancel flights to Uman this year. The question is more about the attitude and the atmosphere that surround the subject of Uman.

Banquet hall proprietors have received much sympathetic media coverage over cancellation of events in their venues. When theatre performances and concerts are canceled there is an embrace of those involved and commiseration with them. Canceled stand-up appearances receive similar treatment as do canceled July and August vacation plans. Parties, clubs, bars, restaurants, trips to the Far East taken by soldiers completing army duty -- we have plenty of understanding for the disappointment that comes with closings and cancelations as dreams are shattered.

Yet there are people for whom Uman is the ultimate dream. They also deserve our empathy, and should not be mocked or denigrated.

I never met Rav Shai Ohayon but the last sentence he spoke to his friend before he was murdered left me a lot to think about.