Ki Teizei: Parapets and You

A man with no history of medical problems suffers a seizure while driving. His out-of-control car veers onto the sidewalk and severely injures several people. Is he liable? 

That question was put to our class on my first day of law school.  The correct answer was “no.”  He could not have foreseen the seizure, he was operating the car safely when stricken, and the legal doctrine of “strict liability” doesn’t apply to driving.  Although he caused the harm, it wasn’t his fault.  

As the earthy saying goes, “[sudden bad things] happen[s].”  Most often, though, they don’t just “happen.”  Usually, we or someone else could indeed have foreseen them, and, through greater care, prevented them.   

“Negligence” is a matter for the courts (both legal and of public opinion), but what does it have to do with religion? In Judaism, a great deal. 

This week’s Torah portion contains the mitzvah (commandment or obligation):

 כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ:

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet [a railing or low wall] for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.  [Deuteronomy 22:8] 

We cannot fulfill the “religious” obligation to “be holy” if we are heedless or careless about how our behavior may harm others.  In Judaism, certainly, observance of ritual is important but definitely secondary to proper behavior toward others.  

I was recently reminded of what being-holy-by-not-harming-others means in everyday life.  An email included this passage in its automatic signature:

If you forward this email, please highlight and delete the forwarding history, including my e-mail address. It is a courtesy to me and others who do not wish to have their email addresses sent all over the world. Deleting the history also helps prevent spammers from harvesting addresses and prevents malicious viruses from being spread. 

It’s a great example of how our ordinary actions may foreseeably hurt others. It’s also a great reminder of our responsibility to constantly consider, before we act, how others might be affected.

Bonus: Cultivating a habit of stopping to consider the potential consequences of even our routine actions will help us to act less impulsively and safeguard us from later regret. 

Making “Put a parapet on your roof” – in the broadest possible sense -- a mitzvah/motto/metaphor to live by. 

Shabbat shalom!

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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb