Facebook Post by Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/6/2020)
Wednesday Post 5.6.20: The Parapet
by Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.
We are living in a republic that is offering us no unified response to this pandemic. Never in my lifetime, have I seen such disparity between states, and such disconnect between the states and the federal government. We don’t have one response to this pandemic, we have many, often conflicting responses. Even in our own DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) area, where deaths are reported separately and together, as we live and work together, each jurisdiction is making its own decisions and looking at the next phase of pandemic response through its own metrics.
What is a responsible person to do? The Washington Post had multiple reports of the public’s response to the reopening of our economy. The most striking bar charts showed that the majority of Americans are fearful of reopening. Less than 30% said they would be comfortable eating in a restaurant. The economy may open, but ultimately it is not the state or the federal government that will dictate how we move forward. Ultimately, each person, each family, will have to make the decisions for themselves.
As I was reading the paper this morning, the rabbi in me kept returning to one verse of Torah, its image, and its implications. In Deuteronomy 22:8 we read, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” I know that seems a bit strange to be pondering over a cup of coffee and a defrosted bialy, but let me explain.
Although the definition of ‘parapet’ evolves with time and history as a military defense, and today refers to guard rails to prevent fire, for our biblical forbears the parapet was a roof protection to prevent people from falling off. People lived on their roofs, and the parapet law was to protect people from the dangers and liabilities atop buildings, including faulty construction. The fact that one would incur ‘bloodguilt’ indicates that the fear was death from negligence, which is a criminal/capital, not civil, offense in biblical law.
So, now I get to my point. Each homeowner was responsible for his/her own parapet. The parapet protected those who owned and those who visited. The parapet was a thoughtful protection against a real and present danger. The government wasn’t responsible for building it; the individual was.
There you have it. We can’t expect anyone to protect us from the real and present dangers of COVID-19, but ourselves. It will be up to each one of us to maintain social distancing, wear masks, take our temperature, decide to go to beaches or businesses, cooperate with contact tracing, and do what we can to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from the potential death threat this virus poses. I have to protect my household and you have to protect yours.
But, the parapet law has one other aspect. It is designed to protect those who live with us, visit us, or might come in contact with our space without our permission. The law of the parapet takes into consideration dangers to ‘the other.’ To the best of our ability, we are obligated to consider the dangers our dwelling creates for those who might be put at risk by our choices. So, the Torah teaches us that whatever decisions we make, they can’t just be for our well-being. We must also be thoughtful about the well-being of others.
People are falling every day. We have obeyed the rules that have required us to build our parapets at home. With the rules lifting, it is now up to us to decide what actions to take, remembering that anyone who falls as a result of our actions will claim bloodguilt upon us.