Parashat Ki Tetze

Unguarded Roofs

We are responsible for our actions, our property, and any objects of danger we witness in the world.

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Here, Maimonides builds upon the radical step already taken by the Torah. In addition to being responsible for acts of omission as well as commission, we are now responsible not only for our own property, but "any other object of potential danger." Our universe of obligation now encompasses everyone, even people we can't see, and we are bound to anticipate potential dangers and preemptively protect people against them--poverty, violence, disease, hunger.

Our Purview of Responsibility

The potential applications of this principle are myriad. Take malaria, the most widespread of transmissible diseases in the world. Each year, malaria causes over 300 million acute illnesses and over one million deaths. In sub-Saharan Africa, the World Health Organization has documented a 20% decrease in child mortality among families that use insecticide-treated mosquito-nets over their sleeping areas. By Maimonides' logic, a malarial mosquito seems a perfect extrapolation from an unfenced roof and we should be bound to provide mosquito nets for all people living in regions affected by malaria.

But where would such responsibility end? If we take the principle to its logical extreme, we run the risk of being paralyzed by compassion fatigue--the feeling of our inadequacy measured against the overwhelming needs we face around the world. It can't be that the Torah and Maimonides would set us up for such an exercise in frustration.

The tradition offers a solution to this dilemma from a well-known Talmudic passage:

"Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is responsible for the sins of the whole world."

The key word here is can. If one can intervene only in one's household, that is the purview in which one is responsible. If however, one can intervene globally, one's responsibility extends that far. 

When we look at the world, at all the roofs left unguarded, all the dangers that imperil people, the implications are daunting. As we begin the season of personal reflection of the high holidays, the question of how much responsibility each one of us bears becomes paramount. We must think deeply about whether we have acted to prevent others' wrongdoing and we must begin the work of constructing parapets, of institutionalizing precautions against destruction, willful or accidental. It's hard work, but if we truly want to avoid "standing idly by the blood our neighbor;" it must be done.

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Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.