Good Fences Facilitate Eternal Life
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, contains the mitzvah of maakeh (railing), which requires a person to place a fence around the roof of his house so those who visit that space will not fall off.
This positive commandment is accompanied by the prohibition of “placing blood” on one’s premises. This means that we may not allow any object or condition of potential danger in our domain to remain uncorrected. Thus, broken steps, loose wires, or various poisons that children can access all constitute clear and present dangers that may not endure in our abode.
At first glance, it is challenging to detect the religious significance of these laws. True, they have great practical importance, but why are they included in the Torah, whose mitzvot are designed to perfect the soul? After all, building a fence is a mundane act of construction. It is decidedly unlike the mezuzah, which is a constant reminder of Hashem’s unity and our obligation to love Him and study His Torah. What religious teaching is embedded in the barrier that we wrap around our rooftop?
The maakeh reflects some fundamental principles of Judaism, which teaches that we must not rely on miracles, but engage the world of reality in a rational manner. The preservation of life is a major moral responsibility that entails avoiding the significant dangers that confront us. Thus, all hazards of life-threatening potential must be eliminated from our habitations.
Still, is a physical fence absolutely necessary? Won’t intelligent, responsible people take care while on a roof and not walk too close to its edge? The same can be said about many other harmful objects: a careful person will avoid them.
Nevertheless, these calculations are of no avail. Even if a homeowner and his family are the most cautious people, they still must put up the maakeh and remove all the obstacles that could “draw blood” in their houses. That is because we should never underestimate the pervasive consequences of human forgetfulness. We have a tendency to forget the hammer we left on top of a ladder, the loaded gun that was supposed to be returned to its secure hiding place, or the broken glass we thought we’d get to later.
How many tragic accidents occur in swimming pools due to distracted parents or guardians? And what about children, left behind in locked cars, to smolder to death? It is hard to believe, but parents in this age of distraction lock their cars and move on to their appointments, totally oblivious to the fact that their baby is locked inside. Is it possible that people can “forget” about the dangers that lurk for those who are most precious to them?
The Torah asserts that it is. Love has nothing to do with it. We should not take lightly the phenomenon of distraction and forgetfulness. Tragedies may be inextricably incorporated into the scheme of human existence. However, while it is true that some of them are beyond our control, far more than we’d like to admit might have been prevented.
Many Torah laws and Rabbinic enactments are based on the preponderance of our forgetfulness. We may not ride a horse on Shabbat because we might inadvertently pull off a branch to use as a whip. Or play a musical instrument because we might unwittingly make a quick repair. And we don’t blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, lest one “carry” his shofar to someone who can blow it for him. Our proneness to inadvertent behaviors is a major theme of Jewish religious practice.
The mitzvah of maakeh has great religious significance. The imperative to “be cautious” does not appeal to our ego, which seeks to convince us that we are invincible and beyond the laws of nature. Some people are addicted to the riskiest behaviors, convinced that nothing adverse can happen to them. This is very much connected to an underlying sense of invincibility.
The fantasy of immortality is the driving force behind much human creativity and the progress of mankind. The Torah does not seek to diminish man or curtail his conquest of nature, but only to teach him that he must live his life within the framework of reality.
And the Torah does not entirely put the kibosh on man’s quest for immortality. The mitzvah of shiluach hakein (“sending the mother bird from the nest”) comes immediately before that of maakeh. It stipulates that one may not take the eggs or young birds of a mother bird unless he first sends away the parent. As a reward for this, the Torah promises that “it will be good for you and you will prolong your days.” To which the Rabbis comment that it will be good “in a world that is entirely good” and prolonged “in a world that is eternal.”
Man’s yearning for immortality can be attained. If we follow the Torah and perfect the soul, it will endure forever in a “world that is completely good.” May we merit to attain it.