For many of us, the texts of our tradition come alive when we engage with them in the very moment in which we are living, replete with the challenges and complexities we experience. A wonderful teacher from the Jewish Theological Seminary -Joseph Lukinsky, used to say that the parsha, the portion we read from the Torah, is like a pair of glasses, providing the lens through which we see the week in which we are engaged with it.
Deuteronomy 22:8 “Ki tivneh bayit hadash ve aseeta maakeh legagekha When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet (like a wall) for your roof, ve lo tasim damim be veitekha ki yipol ha nofel mimenu, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” The parsha’s command to build a wall for the stated purpose to protect anyone who might fall from it, is deeply resonant this week for a number of reasons.
There’s been quite a bit of talk in the congregation about the walls we have put up here in the sanctuary, our own little parapet at 8100 Stevenson Road. The first thing I want to say about it is thank you. Thank you for your patience while we try our best to create a more intimate physical space for shabbat prayer. We know that it means that some of you are displaced from your familiar and preferred seats and we would be grateful if you would partner with us in a view of community that allows for experimentation, new ideas and an evolving understanding of how to pray within a diverse community. We’ve heard that some love it, some hate it, we’ve even heard a few jokes, like the one that says, “Chizuk Amuno is building a wall in their sanctuary and they’re going to make Beth El pay for it.”
When you look around our beautiful building you’ll notice that physical preparations for the Days of Awe have begun in the same way that our spiritual preparations have begun. Risers for the choir have been put on the bimah, the silver has been polished, the carpet is being repaired, the sound system is being tinkered with, and in two weeks the additional seats will be returned to the sanctuary. With that last preparations our parapets will come down for several weeks and we’ll determine how we would like to proceed after the Days of Awe. As always, we welcome your respectful feedback, gently and thoughtfully offered.
That’s minor though in regard to the other walls that have engaged us this week and while we can joke about our own situation, the others are no joking matter. The walls that have so captured our imagination this week and held our interest are walls that have utterly failed to protect the faller, in the words of our Torah portion. They are the storm walls and levees in Houston, Texas that were overwhelmed by the rising waters and have caused profound human loss of life, profound natural disasters of the earth, and profound loss of property and the work of human hands. Our counterpart in Houston, the largest Conservative Synagogue is under three feet of water with a Bar Mitzvah celebrating in a hotel far away from the synagogue in which he grew up, Torahs that are safe from rising waters but inaccessible for an undetermined amount of time.
Many in the news media have spoken about a flood of Biblical proportions. I assume they mean the flood of Noah which overwhelmed the earth. But Noah’s flood is too much cute animals and rainbows. To me, the Biblical nature of this week’s flooding is reflected in the book of Lamentations. Eichah tragedy describes children and toddlers languishing in cities, asking their mothers for food and water as their mothers die in front of them. Dramatic and almost far-fetched were it not for the story and pictures from Beaumont Texas of a three year old girl trapped in a car with her mother amidst rising floodwaters only to survive by floating away on her mother’s body. Lamentations describes it as shever bat ami, the disaster of my poor people. Indeed.
The verse of the Torah uses an unusual turn of phrase in speaking of these poor people the person the parapet is intended to protect, it calls him hanofel, the faller. In doing so, it implies an inevitability of disaster. Even when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is dangerous, the Torah says we are still liable if someone gets hurt. If science tells us that massive floods of Biblical proportion are inevitably coming to a city it is our responsibility not only to help when the disaster happens but to be proactive and take precautions necessary ahead of time to protect life and limb.
The verb the verse uses in commanding the building of a parapet is ve’asita and you shall build. We cannot rely on good sense, on the judgement of others, on plausible deniability, on probability. The moral code set forth in our tradition demands a higher standard. Biblical building codes said that you build a parapet around your roofs because people go up on roofs and once they go up on them and sleep on them do laundry on them, at some point they are going to fall. We want to be the kind of people who help but more than that we want to be the kind of people who do what’s necessary to ensure that help is not ever needed.