Unguarded Roofs

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

Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

Parashat Ki Teitze offers one of the first instances of building code in human history — the precursor to restrictions on asbestos insulation and circuit breaker requirements. At a moment in time when houses had flat roofs, the Torah tells us, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” It’s a simple principle — a flat roof, where family and friends might hang out and barbecue, is an inherently dangerous place. We should anticipate that danger and build a railing so no one falls.

This is an intuitive proposition, but we shouldn’t fail to note one innovative implication. The parapet requirement provides a practical application of the more abstract principle of –“You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).” Beyond demanding that we not perpetrate sins of commission against one another, the Torah now concretely prohibits a sin of omission. It’s not enough for us simply to refrain from pushing someone off of a roof, we must anticipate and proactively protect against that danger.

Objects of Potential Danger

It’s not an especially radical leap to apply the principle more generally — if we can easily foresee that something we own may cause danger, we should take precautionary action to mitigate the danger. It’s in the spirit of this verse that American law has seen fit to regulate some of the most mundane details of home ownership. Homeowners must clear their sidewalks of ice and snow so postal workers won’t slip and fall. Swimming pool owners are required to cover their pools when they’re not in use to prevent wandering children from falling in and drowning.

These are sensible precautions and represent a reasonable approach to assigning responsibility and accountability. Maimonides, however, expands the principle dramatically. In his legal commentary on this verse, he writes:

“Both the roof and any other object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, require that the owner take action… just as the Torah commands us to make a fence on the roof… and so, too, regarding any obstacle which could cause mortal danger, one, not just the owner, has a positive commandment to remove it… if one does not remove it but leaves those obstacles constituting potential danger, one transgresses a positive commandment and negates a negative commandment ‘Thou shall not spill blood’ (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and Protecting Life, 11:4).”

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.

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.


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