Building a Parapet for Our Roofs

Parshat Ki Tetze contains 76 of the 613 commandments in it, more than any other portion. One of them which has often struck me is the following: “When you build a new house, make a parapet for your roof so that blood will not be on your hands.” To what is this referring? In biblical times, those who could not afford to build a house often slept on the roofs of other houses and without a proper safeguard, they could fall off. Therefore, the portion commands those who build a house to build a parapet, protecting anyone who would be sleeping on the roof.

The way I like to think of this is that when we have a home, a structure in which we spend a considerable amount of time, we need to take responsibility to maintain and strengthen it. We need to ensure that the foundations are strong and sturdy so that the home will not only last for us but for our children and for generations yet to come. This at times means making difficult yet crucial decisions in order for the house to stand. As a congregation, we are a family, and we need to continue to respect one another but also to look at and not neglect our future needs. If we are only maintaining our spiritual homes for ourselves and not looking at how to strengthen their foundation for the future, we are engaging in neglect and in danger of the entire house coming down in the future.

This reminds me of a well-known story from Talmud Taanit 23a. One day Honi the circle drawer, a man who would beseech God whenever there was a drought, was walking alongside the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for your tree to bear fruit?” The man answered, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked, “Do you think you will live another seventy years to eat from this fruit?” The man replied, “Probably not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

This wise man taught Honi a lesson: sometimes we have to do things not for us, but for the future. Often this is hard to do-after all, we are drawn to do things which are tangible to us and for which we can see the “fruits” of our labor. Why engage in a task from which we do not directly benefit? The approach from our tradition is that we are responsible to do our part to pay it forward. Look around at this magnificent Sanctuary. There are so many who have financially contributed towards its adornments and beauty, many of whom are here today. There are others who are no longer with us who gave so much to establish our congregation. We need to encourage people to give from their hearts and of their time for the well-being of our congregation.

However, it is not just giving in this sense but understanding what it will take to grow the membership of our congregation. For that I will return to the metaphor of the parapet on the roofs. As committed congregants, we are the ones inside the house, inside the walls of our synagogue. We feel comfortable stepping into this building, and many of us have some of our best friends as fellow members. There are others who are not directly part of our synagogue yet at times might come to the outskirts of our synagogue, to “sleep on the roof.” We must build parapets, safeguards to welcome in and retain these individuals. If we do not do so, they will fall off and we will lose them. In order to have a strong and sustainable house, one must have the proper safeguards in place and it is up to us as a congregation to build those safeguards. What are they? For some it might be social action, for others havurah programming; for some traditional services, for others meditation, musical or yoga services. The bottom line is that we cannot just keep doing business as usual in this day and age. The days when people move to town and instantly join a congregation are over; now, if anything, they are looking for a reason not to join. We must prove to them, sometimes over a matter of years, why a synagogue is a vital and important part of their lives. Let us build the safeguards we need (the more the merrier) to ensure a strong future for our congregation. Equally as important, let us understand when changes are discussed that we do not like that sometimes we have to do things we are reticent about in order to bring in others to our congregation, to embrace them fully rather than leaving them on the roof. May we have the strength and willpower, the wisdom and the foresight, to do so.

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