Ki Tetze 5761
Back to the matter at hand.
On spring and summer afternoons, the Jewish children from the
neighborhood would call up to see if they could drop by for a swim in our
pool. Very often, we would shock them with a firm and unanticipated,
"NO!" "There has to be an adult watching you," I
explained, "and my wife and I are busy with other things."
Typically, this would lead to a prolonged debate about the
appropriate definition of "adult" ("My sister is 12, and
she'll be with us"), followed by eloquent protestations of aquatic
expertise, heart-wrenching descriptions of the ravages of the Savannah
heat on pre-adolescent minds and bodies, and so on.
A pool is a blessing in these parts, to be sure. But it is also a potential hazard.
Cut to this week's parsha. Among its plethora of mitzvos (27 positive commandments and 47 negative commandments, according to the count of Sefer HaChinuch) is the directive to construct a protective barrier around the roof of a house one builds. "If you build a new house, you shall make a fence (ma'akeh) for the roof, so that you will not place blood in your house…" (22, 8)
This mitzvah applies even today, in an age when people don't usually spend time on their roofs (as was the custom in past times): the Talmud explains that any hazard on one's property is included in the prohibition. Open pits should be covered, rusty or wobbly ladders should not be leaned up against the side of the house (inviting unsuspecting climbers), dangerous pets should be properly confined. If a person keeps this in mind, says the Sefer Chareidim (a famous 16th-century work on the commandments), examining his property daily to see what needs repair, it's considered as if he fulfilled the mitzvah of ma'akeh every day.
It seems clear that a swimming pool on one's property would fall under the scope of this mitzvah. One could well be required by the Torah to have a fence erected around the pool, and to be scrupulous in making sure it was well secured when not swimming. However you work out the details, you see my point. Regarding any potential hazard on one's property, the Torah commands us to take action so that it should not pose a threat to the well-being of ourselves or our fellow human beings.
Although it may seem picayune to some, or so obvious that it doesn't need mention, I think the mitzvah of ma'akeh is quite beautiful. The Torah is emphasizing how great a responsibility we have to avoid harming our fellow man even "indirectly" by means of our belongings. The Torah is not stopping you from constructing your dream home. But it comes along and reminds you to have consideration for the safety of others right from the beginning.
And if you want to argue that it is not a rickety ladder, but the Almighty Himself Who decides to take someone's life or not at any given time, and that "if it is not G-d's will, it won't happen," the Sefer HaChinuch has a beautiful response. It's true that G-d watches over the world, and that everything that happens for good or ill (according to the Talmud) is only by Heavenly decree. But even so, we are commanded to guard ourselves to the very best of our ability from danger. Hashem put our eternal souls into bodies, and bodies are subject to the laws of the physical world. As the Sefer HaChinuch bluntly puts it, Hashem "decreed that fire should burn, and water should extinguish the flames, and similarly…if a huge stone falls on one's head, it will shatter his brains and if a person falls from a high roof to the ground, he will die."
We have to develop the greatest respect for these laws of nature that the Almighty Himself put into place, and we can't go fooling ourselves that we are an exception. If it's true that the laws of nature were sometimes suspended for very great individuals (the Midrash tells us Avraham survived when the ruler Nimrod threw him in a furnace for professing monotheism), we still can't go around expecting exemptions for ourselves. We can always hope and pray for a miraculous salvation, but doing our very utmost WITHIN the laws of nature is the Torah way.
Last week, I told you not to speed. This week I'm ordering you to get rid of those rickety ladders, and strengthen the railing around the balcony. Maybe I should have been a Public Safety Commissioner! But, hey, this is Torah. It's "a tree of life," and its paths are peaceful and pleasant.
Threats to life and health must be removed.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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