Ki Tetzei 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10- 25:19)

OVERVIEW

Ki Tetze contains a very wide assortment of laws and instructions for the Jewish people, covering rules for ethical warfare, family life, the prompt burial of the deceased, property laws, the humane treatment of animals, fair labor practices, and proper economic transactions. The parasha ends with the famous command to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt; this paragraph is traditionally read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim.

IN FOCUS

“When you build a new house, you shall make a guardrail for the roof, so that bloodguilt will not be upon your house if a person plummets from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

PSHAT

This law seems fairly straightforward: one must make the safety of others a central consideration in building a house. This was especially relevant in the ancient Middle East, where the roofs of houses were used as drying areas for food and other kind of work, so people were up on the roof regularly. One might be tempted to build more cheaply and omit the guardrail, but the Torah seems to be suggesting that there is a certain level of moral responsibility that comes with owning property. A contemporary analogy might be a fence around a privately owned swimming pool, which is mandated in many municipal codes.

DRASH

The law of the guardrail is an expression of the Torah’s overall reverence for life and the desire to protect it. In fact, this law and others like it became part of a general principle in rabbinic Judaism that a person must do everything possible to protect and preserve his or her own life, as well as the lives of others. On the other hand, Rashi and other commentators raise an interesting theological question: if we assume, as many traditional theologians did, that God decreed when a person lived and died, then why should anybody care about taking public safety measures? After all, if someone fell of your roof and died, then it was a punishment for their sins, and why should any “bloodguilt” be on the owner of the house?

Even the commentators who raise this question realize that leaving all responsibility for life and death to God leaves humans with too little part in their own destiny. Thus Rashi, quoting an earlier midrashic text, explains that:

    [The person who fell] deserved to fall, yet nevertheless his death should not happen by your hand [i.e., you should not become morally liable], for good things are brought about by a good person, and bad things by a bad person.

I think Rashi is saying something rather subtle here: even though we may theoretically ascribe a person’s death to the will of God, it’s still a bad thing that someone should die in an accident, and only a callous and inconsiderate person would create a situation where such accidents were likely to happen.

Furthermore, the “punishment” for being such an inconsiderate person is that “bad things” come about because of you- or, conversely, the “reward” for being a careful and considerate person is that you live a life free of the guilt that presumably accompanies being part of somebody else’s tragedy. This is not to say that careful people never get in automobile accidents, for example, but that if they do, they might be able to get on with their lives knowing that they had not contributed to the accident; their “reward” is a clear conscience.

Another commentator (Alshech, quoted in Abraham Chill, The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale) suggests a novel twist on the basic problem as presented by Rashi. Alshech imagines that a person may in fact be “deserving” of falling off a roof- but God, being a merciful God, is putting off and putting off pronouncing such a “sentence” on this person, until such a time that the guilty party makes it even worse for himself by hanging out at the house of another sinner, one who ignores the commandment to put a rail on the roof. Thus, like Rashi, Alshech tries hard to find a balance between seeing God at work “behind the scenes” and also acknowledging people’s responsibility for one another, as this verse challenges us to do.

I do not know whether the medieval commentators truly believed that every person who fell off a roof, or suffered other kinds of ills and problems, was a sinner who deserved punishment; clearly, many contemporary Jews would find such a theology very problematic. It seems to me that both Rashi and Alshech, among others, also find that theology problematic in its simplest form; if they could accept it uncritically, they wouldn’t need to assign some level of responsibility to the person who built the dangerous house.

A modern commentator offers a third perspective on the rationale for this commandment. Abraham Chill, noted above, suggests that this commandment is more than just an ancient civic building code, but rather indicative of the Torah’s desire that we should temper our faith with an understanding of the world we live in:

    To what extent may a person live by faith alone and in violation of the natural law? May he say to himself: ‘I will lean over a precipice and if I fall to my death, then it must have been the will of God? ‘ May he dig a deep pit and leave it uncovered and say: ‘If anyone falls into it and dies, it must have been the will of God? ‘ The answer is obvious! Faith may and should direct our lives, but we cannot defy the natural law. If he leans over a precipice, then he must realize that he will fall to his death and that only a miracle will save him. Since the Torah guides us in every aspect of our lives, it also deals with commandments that pertain to the dangers that are man-made.

I understand R. Chill’s explanation of this commandment to be a refutation of a simplistic theology of reward and punishment: while we can have faith in God’s ultimate justice, the world we live in is guided by the laws of nature, which we must understand and respect in order to become religiously mature and responsible people. In this view, God doesn’t want us to naively ascribe to God every little thing that happens, but rather to encounter the world as it really is, in order that we may care for one another in every way possible. Thus, to me, the guard-rail on the roof is paradigmatic, suggesting that even our supposedly “private property” must be part of our communal mission to serve God by caring for each other.

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