Most of us have seen signs like: Do not iron this shirt while wearing it. Or: Do not put a person in this washer/dryer. Do not use microwave to dry pets. Or on coffee cups: “Liquid may be very hot. Be careful.”
Many of these idiotic warnings come originally from the US, where people actually sue companies (and win) when they iron a shirt while wearing it, put a pet in a microwave or spill hot coffee on themselves and wonder why they got burnt.
Believe it or not, we can find a quasi-antecedent for these silly signs in today’s parsha. At first reading it doesn’t sound silly. “When you build a new house you shall make a parapet – a railing – for your roof so that a person who may fall – will not fall off it.”
On the one hand, we say: the houses they built then had flat roofs, not tiled, not sloped, so it makes sense. But does it? Did kids go up there to play soccer? Did the guys go up to have a barbeque there? Really?
So what are we being told here between the lines? We are being told to think ahead, to plans steps to avoid reasonable risks. Is falling off a roof a reasonable risk? Yes. Providing a reasonable amount of prevention is easy if planned in advance – by putting up a railing. A one-meter high parapet is enough.
We see extensions of this idea in everyday life. Where snow falls and ice forms, homeowners are required by law to shovel and clear their sidewalks. Safety. Private swimming pools in the back yard have to be covered when not in use. Safety. Simple, logical steps.
But then the rabbis began to dig deeper. The Rambam, Maimonides, makes a broad generalization. If you see a danger and can – but do not do – something about it, you have aided and abetted the shedding of blood. Nothing less.
We’re talking responsibility of the individual toward society as a whole, and in fact, in many instances of our history, to this day, we find individuals and groups working to remove obstacles, prevent accidents and assist wherever they can.
This pie-in-the-sky vision of altruism sweeping society and making us into one caring, mutually responsible whole is hard to swallow on a few counts. Let’s not even talk about the fact that not everyone will make the effort. Forget about those. The real problem for those who want to help is CHOICE. Studies have shown that when faced with too many options, we have much more difficulty deciding than if we are limited to two or three or four options. When visiting Brooklyn after having been here for several years, I remember running out a supermarket in Brooklyn when faced with Grand Canyon high walls of breakfast cereals to choose from.
When we listen to the news we say, Wow, gang rapes are something we have to try to eliminate. Wait, the health hazard in the Haifa Bay area – we have to do something about that. Oh, they’re polluting the Kineret – we have to help clean up. Oh, so many people without food – we have to volunteer with Leket or some other organization to help out. And we’re not talking politics! By the time we have finished making a list of projects we simply have to work on to help better society and make it safer – we are exhausted. Worn out. Burnt out.
Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Not really. Chazal came up with a formula which, paraphrased, says: If you can prevent a family member from sinning and don’t, you are responsible for your family’s sins. If you can prevent your community from sinning and don’t, you are responsible for your community’s sins. And if you can prevent the world from sinning and don’t’, you are responsible for the world’s sins. It’s all a matter of proportions. Of what is within your actual ability to do.
So can we do anything? Here’s a simple example. In today’s situation, if we make sure everyone around us is wearing a mask – we are taking a step that can help protect us all.
Much of the tendency to build a protective network, whether physical, spiritual or emotional, is instilled in us early through the values we learn as children, and then impart as parents, teachers and leaders. Let us hope that we as a society can continue to implant and nourish these physical-spiritual-emotional guardrails in our family and society.