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Safety First? A Textual Torah Analysis

When you build a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence. (Deut. 22:8)

This is common sense, right? “Be safe” is the message. And the example given is protecting people on flat roofs from falling off the edge.

Except that this is not reflective of a close reading of the text. We don’t believe that there are any extra (or missing) words. The issue is that the text does not read: “Though shalt make a parapet for thy roof,” which is what it would say if the Torah is merely telling us to make sure our roofs are safe.

Instead, the verse starts with “When you build a new house.” Which begs a simple question: why are we commanded to make our roofs safe when a person builds a new house?

Indeed, the same Torah tells us to make an elevated altar for which there is no parapet – a priest might well fall off the edge. And so we have a related question: What is the difference between the altar and the new house?

I think there is a shared answer: building a new house, unlike buying one that already existed, or building an altar from a divinely-provided set of drawings, is a creative act on the part of the builder.

Which would mean that the original verse should be understood in a broader context. It is not – really – about ensuring that roofs have parapets. Instead, the Torah is telling us that when we engage in a creative act, we need to think about and mitigate the potential downsides of that creative act.

In the Torah, creativity and productivity are good things in themselves. What this verse tells us is that we need to recognize that even good things will have unintended consequences and potential detrimental results. Be creative – but mitigate the downsides.

Comments are welcome!