We read in Devarim/Deut. 22:8 this week, “If you build a new home, you should make a guardrail for your roof, in order that you not bring blood upon your house if a fallen one falls from it.”
At first reading this is a pretty clear-cut mitzvah. Property owners are enjoined in several places in the Torah to make certain that they take every precaution possible to avoid anyone injuring themselves on their property. Obviously, a flat roof such as was customary in ancient times would be a serious hazard and therefore, the Torah warns against the possibility of anyone climbing up there and falling off. In Israel today, it is still required by law that buildings with flat roofs have a protective fence or railing built on them.
But is there more to this verse?
It is no accident that this portion is read during the month of Elul when we are focused on examining our behavior over the past year and determining areas for improvement in the year to come.
It could be said that ‘going up to the roof’ symbolizes our investing more time during this month to re-evaluate our lives and form resolutions for the future. It can also be categorically stated that the vast majority of resolutions formed at the onset of a new year, be it the Hebrew year or the western year, do not last very long. We soon forget the exalted promises we made ‘on the roof’ and quite easily ‘fall off’ – back to our old habits. The commandment to build a guardrail on the roof, then, speaks to us about the necessity to not only resolve to improve, but to establish for ourselves guidelines, a specific plan of action we will undertake in order to grow spiritually in the new year. Anyone can make resolutions but without the ‘guardrail’ that will help us keep them, the exalted promises we make to ourselves and/or to Hashem will soon be forgotten.
It has been suggested that the guardrail is symbolic of embracing an attitude of humility. While we aspire to become better individuals in the new year, establishing a ‘guardrail’ (a plan of action to which we will be accountable) demonstrates that we understand our own weakness. The fact of the matter is this: we only truly ‘fall’ when we have no fence, no guardrail against our own pride and arrogance.
It is noteworthy that the Torah does not advise command people never to climb to the roof; rather, to provide a safeguard against falling off.
The balancing truth to this discussion is that falls are inevitable. We read in Mishle/Proverbs 24:16 that “a righteous man falls seven times but rises again.” A true tzaddik (righteous person) is one who keeps getting back up whenever he falls. Testimonies abound of people who truly turned to God as a result of a serious ‘fall’. The very experience of failing badly in an area of life provided the impetus that drew them to a relationship with God and a new way of life.
King David had a habit of going up to the roof of his palace to commune with God. Yet that very sacred place became a snare for him, when he crossed the ‘boundary’ of his own roof by looking upon a woman bathing on someone else’s roof. That event haunted David for the rest of his life.
God knows our human frailty. He understands the fabric of our being. He is, after all, the Creator.
While ‘falls’ are inevitable, the commandment to construct a fixed and clear boundary is designed to encourage and enable us to reach for spiritual heights with wisdom – understanding that our reaching must be more than fanciful. To wisely reach for spiritual heights is to do so within the protective structure of Torah, community and accountability.
In Tune with Torah this week = as we ponder areas of growth we wish to undertake in the coming year, what specific plan are we developing to enable that growth? What guardrails do we need to construct in our own lives lest we ‘fall off the roof’ of our good intentions?