Building Outer Parapets and Taking Inner Parapets Down

Parashat Ki Tetzei contains more than 10% of the Torah’s laws – by some counts there are 72 mitzvot and by others there are 74 mitzvot in this morning’s parashah.  There are laws about human dignity, laws about divorce, laws about rape, kidnapping, building houses, paying workers on time, and waging wars.  

This morning I would like to focus on one specific law.  Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verse 8, which we read during the fifth aliyah, says, “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.”  A ma’akeh or parapet is a low wall, fence, or railing and its purpose is to protect people from falling off the roof. 

In ancient Israel, rooves were flat and people would use the space to hang out or even to sleep on hot summer nights.  The law in Ki Teitze is meant to keep people safe. 

It was later expanded to include other precautions – the halakhic midrash Sifre, for instance, obligates a person to construct a guardrail around a storage pit, and the talmud, (Ketubbot 41b) uses the biblical law as grounds to prohibit one from raising a vicious dog or from keeping a rickety ladder that might break.  Our values teach that we must do our best to keep people protected from harm.

This notion of building a parapet, and more generally, taking safety precautions, feels especially poignant right now.  It is why we continue to meet virtually.  Zoom has become our proverbial parapet.  We pray, learn, socialize, and gather on line in order to keep ourselves and one another safe from Covid-19. 

Keeping a physical distance right now ensures our safety, which sounds obvious, but I fear that we are growing forgetful, because as the weeks have turned into months, we might find ourselves frustrated and tired of staying in.  We might be wondering why we can’t be together at Beth David for the holidays, if not inside the building then at least outside, but as we know, people are continuing to get sick and die, and so we must be careful. 

The parapet in our Torah portion this morning is a timely reminder that we must do what we can to keep our community safe and protected.

But there is something ironic about the parapet.  While we are instructed to build a fence around the roof, I am concerned that perhaps we are building our internal walls too high and too strong.  Perhaps we have built a fence around our heart.  As Rashi points out in his commentary – “the fencing is like a casing which guards the things that are within it.”  The flipside means that there are people or causes or emotions on the outside that we are not letting in.

We are now nine days into the month of Elul – the last month on the Jewish calendar, and the one in which we are supposed to look inward, take stock of ourselves and of our lives and choices by doing cheshbon ha-nefesh – by doing some soul-searching. 

As I mentioned last night, I think cheshbon ha-nefesh needs to look a little different this year – this does not seem to be the time to beat ourselves up for our “normal” shortcomings – for not creating and maintaining a work-life balance, for example, or for being a bit short-tempered, or for not meeting all of the goals we had set for ourselves last High Holiday season.  I believe that we are doing the best we can under very stressful circumstances. 

This Elul and throughout this High Holy Day Season, I believe that we ought to treat ourselves with compassion, love, and kindness.  And at the same time, we must look to see where we have built our internal parapets too high. 

Who are we not letting in?  What are we keeping out?  Can we soften our inner-walls to make room for the suffering in our world, even though we are exhausted and stressed and scared?  Even though it might be easier to shut out the world around us?

It has been a tough, tough week. Again.

The fires continue to rage – as of yesterday afternoon, despite ongoing heroic efforts, the CZU fire was only 26% contained.  And while people in this part of the world have lost their homes to the fires, people in Louisiana have lost their homes to a hurricane.  Our country witnessed another episode of police brutality, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times.  The shooting set off a round of protests resulting in two deaths at the hands of a seventeen-year-old, and a local synagogue was vandalized.  Meanwhile, the Chabad Center at the University of Delaware was set on fire in what seems to be an anti-Semitic act of arson.

It would be easier to shore up our internal fences to keep us safe by keeping the suffering out, but Elul calls on us to break down our inner walls, to allow ourselves to be emotionally open and vulnerable.  We are called on to pursue justice as our Torah portion taught us last week, and to care about the irreducible dignity and worth of human beings – even those on the margins of society, as our parashah teaches us this week.

While it is critical that our physical parapets remain strong and secure during this time in order to keep us safe, it is also essential that we allow our inner-walls to come down.  During this month of Elul, when we turn inward to compassionately examine ourselves, let us commit to making emotional space for others. 

I know we’re tired.  There are probably some mornings that we wake up and wonder how we will make it through another smoky, pandemic day. 

And I also know, that we can do this – we can open ourselves emotionally, we can make room for one another, and it can be as simple as texting a friend who has been evacuated.  Or calling an someone who might be lonely. 

If you want to open yourself to the world a little more, I encourage you to go to the Anti-Defamation League’s website and listen to the fireside chats on combatting online hate and harassment (https://www.adl.org/fireside-chat-series-with-adl-belfer-fellows), or register for the Fighting Hate from Home webinars (https://www.adl.org/take-action).

If you are able, make a donation to the Jewish Family Services Emergency Fire Relief Fund (https://www.jfssv.org/california-fire-relief.html) or bring donations of:  baby items, kids’ toys or books, non-perishable food, bottled water, new underwear, socks, blankets, sheets, towels, or pet food to Prince of Peace (just down the street from Beth David) which is now open as a donation site.  We can soften our inner walls to make space for people who are hurting, even though we are feeling strained ourselves.

This Elul and throughout this High Holy Day season, I pray that we will stay safe behind our physical walls, while being brave enough to let the world in, as we take down our inner parapets. 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

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