D’var Torah: August 27, 2015

Dear Friends,

How responsible, or entwined, are we in one another’s affairs?

For instance, what happens if you build a new house, upon which there is a flat roof, and you erect a fence around that roof to prevent someone from falling, and yet, someone falls from the roof? Who is responsible? You, for it is your home and your roof and your fence, or the man, who despite the fence, which was presumably of proper height and sufficiently sturdy, still managed to fall?

Such are the questions which our Torah portion (Parasahat Ke Teitze, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) raises. It states explicitly, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deut. 22:8)

Clearly, this is a verse which either an insurance broker, or a roofing contractor, would love. Yet, the questions of communal safety, personal responsibility, personal indemnification, and enduring guilt all find traction with us today. Building codes are designed for two reasons – to safeguard the stability and safety of the edifice, and to release the community from responsibility for potentially allowing a deficient structure from being erected. Essentially, John Donne was correct: we are all engaged in what anyone of us is doing, the bell tolls for thee.

Ultimately, this is the most essential concern of civilization. When we were cavemen, living in our own little world, the well-being of the Neanderthal on the next mountain was of little concern. Yet, once we began to live together, sharing meadows, rivers, walls, roofs and driveways, we impact one another, and are so impacted. Civilization is the process of creating boundaries, regulations, ethics and mores by which people can live together – be it branding our cattle, erecting stop signs, establishing health codes, placing TSA agents at airports or placing body cameras on policemen.

The Torah’s little instruction about placing a fence on a flat roof has far greater implications. It is a command to take responsibility for how we live together, and then living accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Douglas Kohn