By: Rabbi Neal I Borovitz, Rabbi Emeritus
Temple Avodat Shalom
River Edge, NJ
This week’s Torah reading is called Ki Teitzei. It begins the verse ”
When you go out to war
” and speaks of the limitations of conquest, but goes on to include according to Maimonides, the great Medieval Torah scholar who compiled a book called Sefer ha Mitzvot, 72 of the 613 commandments of the Torah. When I come to study this Parsha each year during the month of Elul, I often feel it’s as if, Moses, knowing that he has the entire community’s attention, is trying to say it all. It reminds me of how I and all of my rabbinic colleagues feel around the High Holy Days and why, similar to this Torah portion, many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons are way too long and far too broad. With this awareness in mind I am going to limit my comments this week to just one of the many diverse and diffuse commandments found in this week’s portion.
The Mitzvah I choose to focus upon is the seemingly uninteresting command that we have to build a parapet around our roof so that we don’t incur guilt for spilling blood. (Verse 22:8)
Why is the Torah worrying about building codes?
In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides wrote regarding the parapet: (positive commandment 184)
by this injunction we are commanded to remove all obstacles and sources of danger from all places in which we live; that is to build walls or parapets around roofs, cisterns, trenches and the like… In like manner it is obligatory to remove and guard against every obstacle which constitutes a threat to life and limb.
As we approach the High Holy Days, with their theme of personal and communal judgment, the pesha” the literal letter of this Mitzvah remains relevant and salient. At this time of accounting and accountability, can we as a society recognize that in many so called “natural disaster” in the world, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, deaths are multiplied many fold because of poor construction of housing and by the human decisions to build housing on flood plains or barrier reefs that perhaps The Creator of the Universe meant for us to leave unsettled?
I hear in the text of this Mitzvah more than just a command to build safe housing. Rosh Hashanah is called a Day of Remembrance. As Jews must we not affirm that we cannot forget the many people around the world living in substandard housing and millions more who are homeless; some because of economic inequity, and others because of political and social upheaval? The Parapet that we are commanded to build in our Parsha can, I believe, be a reminder to us that we have a responsibility to not let the poor fall off the edges of our societal roofs. In Israel’s two most recent elections the issue of housing for poor and middle income citizens has played a large role. Similar to America and Western Europe, Israel today is confronted by economic inequality that is allowing too many to literally fall into “
the cisterns and trenches
” that Maimonides spoke of 1000 years ago.
A second even more tragic and dangerous situation is the ever increasing numbers of homeless refugees around the world. I recently heard from a leader of the world wide Episcopal Church Refugee program that in 2015 the percentage of refugees in the world is higher than at any time since the end of WWII. Building a safe “
” around our homes and building homes for the homeless in our own communities and worldwide is certainly a great challenge for the world as we enter the year 5776.
There is one final lesson I see in this often unnoticed Mitzvah of the 72 found in our Torah portion. The law to build a parapet on our roofs is more than just a warning to us to legislate and enforce better building codes, locally and globally, and to demand of world leaders that they work together on the resettlement of refugees. I suggest to you that the command to build a fence on our roofs is a metaphor for life in the 21st century. For me, the ethical and moral teachings of Torah, so many of which are listed in this week’s Torah reading, are the parapet or fence, which can guard each of us from falling off the plain of decency, into the cistern of hatred and selfishness. The mixture in our Parsha of seemingly unconnected ritual and moral commandments stand as a reminder that each of us has the opportunity and responsibility to build our own personal parapet, that will not only guard us from falling off the path of Justice and Righteousness, but will protect all who enter our homes and communities from suffering from our negligence.
The theme of Rosh Hashanah is that through Tshuvah, Repentance; T’filah, Prayer; and Tzedaka, Acts of Charity and Kindness, we can write our own inscription the Sefer ha Chayim, The Book of Life. May this lesson from Maimonides, Sefer ha Mitzvot, the Book of Commandments, inspire each of us, on this Shabbat called “Ki Tetze” “
When they go forth
” to embark on a mission to build homes that are not only places open to all and from which Torah goes forth, but also places of safety and security for us and all who seek refuge with us.