Officials knew the hurricane was coming. They recognized the potential danger it posed for the citizens of their states, counties, cities, towns, villages, etc. Deciding to err on the side of caution, they ordered evacuations, shut down public transit, and took other actions to prepare.
People grumbled and people whined. Many followed the directions of officials, yet a significant number chose to flaunt their independent nature.
Some communities were heavily damaged. Others escaped the worst possible outcomes. Yet others suffered more problems in the aftermath of the hurricane: flooding, loss of electricity and other utilities. In some areas it took days, even a week or more, to restore service.
No sooner than the storm had passed that the pundits were out second-guessing the officials, criticizing the the officials (and the media) for over-reacting.
Now we are approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Already NYC is experiencing massive traffic jams due to the increased and heightened security. Again, people are grumbling and complaining – though this time there are grumbles on both sides – i.e. some are grumbling that the whiners and grumblers about the delays and inconveniences need a reality check – that in light of what did happen almost ten years ago, no precaution and no inconvenience is too much.
Both situations are examples of putting the commandment from D’varim 22:8 to build a parapet on the roof of one’s house into practice in a more metaphorical sense.
After all, unlike some ancient practices which Jews maintain to this very day, we don’t all erect a parapet on the roof of any new homes we build and occupy. I’ve had well-meaning non-Jews ask me several times over the decades (this came up not a few times while I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School) why, given that we still follow the commandment regarding shatnez (the mixing of wool and linen in garments) from this parasha, or to cite an example from elsewhere in the Torah, given that we still place mezuzot on our doorposts and gates, do we not create even “symbolic” parapets on our homes.
This has always been for me a very teachable moment. It is an opportunity to explain how Judaism has evolved and continues to evolve. From there we can explore the various ways in which Judaism has evolved – from nomadic existence to slavery, to wandering in the wilderness, to ancient nation-state, to Temple cult, to exile/return/rebuilding, to diaspora, to rabbinic Judaism, to the medieval philosophers, to the haskala, to the hasidim and mitnagdim, to Reform/Conservative/Modern Orthodox, and beyond.
Certainly by the rabbinic period, guided by Mishna, Gemara and eventually the Talmud, we were restructuring Judaism with an eye to current circumstances. Choices were made as to which commandments we could still practice, and guidance was offered for the many commandments that were unclear, or challenged by new realities. The rabbis, sages, philosophers, and contemporary poskim all thought/think carefully about how to reconcile Torah with current circumstances and knowledge.
Many non-Jews (as well as many liberal Jews) have the mistaken idea that the modern liberal Judaisms (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, et al) are the only form of Judaism that is evolving. Almost each and every day our brothers and sisters in the traditional/orthodox/hasidic/frum communities struggle with our rapidly changing world and society, and turn to their rabbis, leaders, and scholars for guidance.
Our traditional friends are often criticized for basing their “wiggle room” decisions on following the “letter of the law” rather than the intent. To some extent, there is validity to that criticism, however, I do not believe it can be generalized. I have read a good many opinions of orthodox poskim that clearly wrestle with both letter and intent of the halakha. With the exception of the scoundrels that exist in any community, I am certain that orthodox/traditional/hasidic/frum leaders are always concerned with more than the letter of the law when rendering opinions or decisions. To believe otherwise would also require me to think somewhat poorly about their antecedents, the rabbis who created what we know as rabbinic Judaism.
Sure, Hillel (and many other great rabbis) kept a keen eye on the practical, and there are times I am compelled to question some of their opinions (Hillel’s prosbul comes to mind as a somewhat dicey approach.) We’ve also the great story of the oven at Akhnai in which the rabbis clearly state that their opinions (which they base on the “oral Torah” of which we have only their word that it, too, was given to us at Sinai) are the only ones that matter in interpreting the Torah (and even G”d admit defeat at the hands of G”d’s own creations, according to the story.) Yet, despite the enormous hubris of the great rabbis, I’m reluctant to suggest that their approach to interpreting the Torah was almost entirely focused on the practical, because there is too much evidence to the contrary. Indeed, ethics, intention, and even metaphysical probably figured into their opinions.
As to parapets, there’s lots to consider. First, the commandment specifies new construction. It also clearly stipulates that the reason for the commandment is to avoid blood guilt by protecting the lives of those who go on your roof. Parapets certainly make sense on flat roofs, and especially in a time and place when roofs were used for drying and other activities and used regularly. Makes somewhat less sense on slanted roofs and ones where people would not usually go.
Yes, we’re back in an era where one finds plenty of flat roofs, many of which do see regular use for all sorts of activities.I daresay one would be hard-pressed to find a flat roof anywhere in the world today that wasn’t protected by some kind of parapet-what builder or landlord wants to be found liable of not being reasonably prudent in protecting people from falling off the roofs of their properties?
Jews today interpret the parapet commandment as instructing them to always take reasonable precautions to protect the lives of others (and themselves) by making sure their property or premises are safe.
All of which is a long way to go in explaining why we don’t build parapets, and why, in a way, we still do.
Human beings are far from perfect. I am sure there were people in ancient Israel who ignored or flaunted the parapet regulations, even though they were from the Torah. Just as there are plenty today who flaunt the need for real or metaphorical parapets. Their arguments probably haven’t changed all that much: too expensive, too inconvenient, bad cost/benefit ratio, nobody ever goes up there anyway, people need to take their own precautions, only an idiot would go near the edge, etc.
During the recent hurricane, NYC police had to rescue two people who had chosen to go out kayaking in NY harbor. People who chose not to evacuate from mandatory evacuation zones had the nerve to complain that city officials didn’t do enough to help them!
No one asked to die in the twin towers on 9/11. That’s why plenty of people, professionals and volunteers alike went in to try and rescue folks. No parapet could have saved them (though it can be argued that problems and holes in our intelligence network were sufficient as to be compared to the lack of a metaphoric parapet. In the aftermath, officials did realize they needed a better parapet, and they set about building one. We can argue about how well they did/are doing, and about the liberties that may have been sacrificed in the process, but that’s not the focus here.)
So I applaud the way that officials take their obligation to build parapets seriously. I am more than willing to put up with inconvenience for the chance that lives can be saved. I think that how we create these metaphorical parapets is a subject that needs discussion as thorough as the type employed by the rabbis of the Talmud, who always sought to look at every side of a question. I also think that, like the Talmud does, we ought to preserve within our records all the arguments – because times and circumstances do change, and a time may come when access to the dissenting opinions may prove invaluable in meeting challenges.
It is said that the rabbis of the Talmud sought to create a fence around the Torah. They were concerned with the potential for violating commandments we didn’t fully understand, so they instructed us to keep our distance from the problem area just in case.
Today, many people are climbing over, digging under, or simply ignoring that fence, to get to the Torah. Which raises the question – does the Torah herself have a parapet to protect those of us who who ascend her heights? I can think of several responses to that question, but I’d rather leave it unanswered here so thought you (and I) might have something to do this Shabbat. I hope that you will share your answers with me and all my readers.
May this Shabbat be your parapet in these tumultuous times.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
By the way, I have a new blog: Adrian is Back in The City on which I am sharing my thoughts at being back in NYC after over three decades away, and having lived in communities large and small around the country. I also blog on Jewish music (Hava Nashira Blog) and Technology in Jewish Education (Yoeitzdrian)
Other musings on this parasha:
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766-B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758--Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard