Parashat Ki Tetze: Listening to and learning from nature

If we have any chance to mitigate the effects of climate change which is rapidly becoming more dangerous and deadly for human life, we need to lessen our human hubris and increase our humility.

 NIAGARA FALLS: Nature in all its powerful glory.  (photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
NIAGARA FALLS: Nature in all its powerful glory.
(photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

In this week’s parsha, we read: “When you build a house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut 22:8).

It is a mitzvah/commandment important for safety – preventing someone from falling off the roof or hindering something from falling off the roof – but also because it models proactive action and long-term thinking. Too often, we engage in reactive responses and short-term reasoning. While such an approach may seem and feel more comfortable, it often results in problems and challenges that are harder and more expensive to address.

Maggidah (professional Jewish storyteller and preacher) Melissa Carpenter points out that roofs in ancient times “were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them,” and “the Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations, for sleeping, for storage, and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods. The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.”

Unlike today, when roofs are often given little thought, during the biblical period they were important for their multi-usage, so making them safe was essential.

According to Me’am Lo’ez, following the Talmud (Baba Batra 61a), a parapet should be a minimum of 10 hand-breadths (about 30 inches/75 centimeters) high and be strong enough to support a person should they lean on it (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 11:3).

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

Rabbi Louis Jacobs adds: “The Talmud (Baba Kama 15b) records that second-century teacher Rabbi Nathan extended the law of the parapet to prohibit keeping a vicious dog or a precarious ladder in the home. Obviously, it would apply today to the need to keep away from children medicines that could cause them harm, or the failure to repair faulty electrical appliances. Another instance would be failing to check the brakes of an automobile.”

IN ADDITION to this important directive about proactive safety practices, there is another dimension to our verse (Deut 22:8) that must be examined. While translated as “if anyone should fall from it,” it literally means “a fallen who will fall, will fall from it.”

The Talmud, in commenting on our verse, states that such a person “was destined to fall [from that roof] since the six days of Creation” (Shabbat 32a). The Talmud adds, “the verse calls him fallen” even before he fell, since it was predestined.

This all seems to fly in the face of free will. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Israeli writer on Jewish thought and Western philosophy) offers a fascinating approach:

“And one may say that it is just in the formulation of our Sages: ‘this person deserves to fall from the creation’ – that we have a hint at a possible explanation. What was determined in the creation? The laws of nature, the causality of nature” (Leibowitz, Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah, p. 184).

What a remarkable theological insight. To put it another way, “In the beginning, God created science, and it was good.” That is to say, our world was created by a system of natural laws that we can observe to learn from and inform us how to live our lives. This is related to Daoism. Columbia University historian Irene Bloom taught:

“The basic idea of the Daoists, was to enable people to realize that, since human life is really only a small part of a larger process of nature, the only human actions which ultimately make sense are those which are in accord with the flow of Nature – the Dao or the Way.

“Their sensitivity to the way of Nature prompted them to reject human ideas or standards which might lead to an overly assertive mode of behavior or too strong a commitment to the achievement of worldly goals. For Daoists, such unnatural assertiveness was the root cause of violence and aggression.”

WE NOTE that we call Jewish law “halacha,” which comes from the three-letter root hay-lamed-chaf, meaning “walk.” Namely, Jewish law is translating the 613 mitzvot into action. There is a way, a path, which, according to Leibowitz, follows nature.

Judaism and the climate crisis

This brings us back to last week’s commentary on the climate crisis and the mitzvah of ba’al tashtit, which commands that undue destruction of the environment and/or products made from the environment (i.e., everything we use) violates the Torah.

We are told to say a minimum of 100 blessings a day (Talmud: Menachot 43b). Many siddurim/prayer books give options for those daily blessings. A large number of those blessings have to do with the natural world – oceans, rain, mountains, wonders of nature, beauties of nature, blossoming trees, storms, etc. We say not only to appreciate them but also to observe and learn from them – nature speaks and reveals to us as part of God’s created world.

We find another critical lesson from this week’s parasha and verse. Melissa Carpenter teaches:

“The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall… ‘Make a railing for your upper storey.’ If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: ‘for its upper storey.’ As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride.”

If we have any chance to mitigate the effects of climate change which is rapidly becoming more dangerous and deadly for human life, we need to increase our understanding of the Torah and the natural world we too are a part of. To do that, we need to lessen our human hubris and increase our humility. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.