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Destined to Fall?

08/19/2021 04:10:48 PM


This week's parasha includes the commandment (Deuteronomy 22:8) to place a parapet around one's roof, lest someone fall off. In ancient dwelling, the roof functioned as an important useable space, much like a deck or a backyard today. Hence, when King David spied Bathsheva in the bath, he was on the roof of his palace, and she may have been on her own roof as well!

Nowadays, we take it for granted that there will be railings and guardrail anywhere that people might go, but at one time, it was not obvious. Someone might say “it’s my house, I can do what I want, if I want to take the risk it is on me.”  Or, conversely, Sifrei, the earliest commentary on Deuteronomy, poses the theological possibility that if someone falls off a roof, that it was God’s plan all along (perhaps even intended from the very beginning of creation). If God meant for my visitor to plummet from the roof, who am I to stop it? Rashi responds that even if something bad might be inevitable, we should not act in a way that enables or hastens it. God may allow evil, but we need not be the agents for it.

Later sages applied these rules to a broad range of situations in which a person has a dangerous object in their home- a vicious dog, or even a gun. Just as a person is permitted to have, and use, their rooftop, but doing so imposes responsibilities on the owner, so too, the Torah leaves room for those who need to have a potentially life-endangering object in their home to do so, but demands that they must also assume the ethical responsibilities that come with its ownership.

As a society we are struggling with similar questions, as we are in an environment where many otherwise worthwhile activities entail a level of risk.  What obligation do we have to protect others from that risk, even if they assume it knowingly?   Could we say, like Sifrei, that they made their own choices, and “they were destined to fall sooner or later?” My answer to that question is part of what drives my return to wearing a mask, even though I’m vaccinated. I know that my risk of life-threatening illness is far smaller than it was, but I also know that a mild case for me, if spread, could create life-threatening danger for others that I encounter.

At B’nai Torah we wrestled with these questions as we were revising our plans for high holidays and other events.   Were we obligated to put up guardrails (metaphorically speaking)  to prevent people from undertaking serious risks, even if they felt comfortable doing so? If we hosted a party or private event, were we responsible if the participants there acted in ways which endangered themselves?  We concluded that we do have a level of responsibility- that even if someone chooses to “live on the edge” elsewhere, that the Biblical commandment had to apply not just on top of, but under, our roof, and therefore we had an obligation to put in place as many protections as we could.

However, this commandment transcends the rules of home construction, and the current moment as well. We are often presented with the choice whether to worry about protecting the well-being of others, at the expense of our own convenience. The Torah knows that we cannot refrain from important human activities. It would be a shame not to make use of the air and light of the rooftop.  However, that action cannot be taken without full awareness of who may fall, and without reasonable attempts to protect them.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784