Congregational Town Hall Meeting Remarks

This week’s Torah Portion “כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א” / “When you go out” contains over 70 commandments, whose consistency with the values we uphold as Jews and the ways in which our jewish lives are informed fluctuates greatly.

For today’s teaching, rather than zooming in on the more challenging verses in our Parasha- I wanted to take a look at a brief instruction on physical construction:

כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

Deuteronomy 22:8

The Jewish Publication Society offers the following translation:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet (railing) for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

While the translation makes use of “anyone” as the word to describe the individual who might find themselves on a railing-free roof thus risking a fall, it is interesting to note that in the Hebrew, what’s translated as “anyone” is “הַנֹּפֵ֖ל” – literally, the faller – replacing “anyone” with “the faller”, the verse reads as follows:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet (railing) for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if the faller should fall from it.”

The faller! It seems as if just the possibility of falling – not the actual act of falling – is sufficient to identify the one on the roof as “the faller”. Even if the roof is flat and low and the weather conditions are stable, we’re asked to make sure we take the extra steps to prevent “the faller” from falling. But can we name a person “a faller” even before they fall?
Or maybe God already knows that “the faller” will fall, that is to say “the faller’s fate is predestined and there’s really no choice in the matter?

This verse and its peculiar labeling of the person on the roof as “faller”, brings up for me the question of freedom of choice. Is it up to us to change from “faller” to “get-upper”? – This question is particularly interesting during this High Holiday season, a season of reflection, introspection, accounting of the soul, forgiveness and ultimately a season of choice, with the option of choosing to turn towards that which we identify as helpful in living more purposefully and meaningfully and returning towards that which we’ve forgotten about or considered lost.

Maybe “the faller” in our verse comes to remind us that we all – without exception – are “fallers”. By the laws of nature and physics and I’d like to add spirituality, none of us is excluded from gravitational powers that pull us down, from the roof to the earth. In this regard we’re all “fallers” by default.

We can’t change the laws of nature, but we have the ability – and the Torah suggests obligation – to build railings for ourselves and for those who enter our space/building/atrium to prevent a fall. We can make sure there are railings built – railings of grace, compassion, mercy, welcoming, curiosity and care to save our guests, our workers and ourselves from falling.
In these days of soul accounting, may our railings keep safe those that are near to us, provide us with stability and refuge and may our shared human experience of falling inspire us to recommit to choosing life and celebrating it every day anew.