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Beit Midrash Series Parashat Hashavua

Be Careful! Can It Make a Difference?

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The Torah instructs one who builds a house to build a fence for its roof, so that no one should fall from it (Devarim 22:8). The reasoning behind the mitzva raises a well-known philosophical question, which applies in varied forms in many cases. If the person who might be killed if there were no fence did not deserve to die (in this manner), would he fall just because the homeowner did not build a fence? If indeed he would not fall, why is there a need for the mitzva in the first place?

The most famous answer is found in the gemara (Shabbat 32a): "This one was suited from the sixth days of creation to fall … but meritorious matters are arranged to involve meritorious people and tragedies are arranged to involve culpable people." The simple explanation is that a given person who was supposed to die would have died anyway, but it is better for the homeowner that he should die in some different way, or if by falling from someone’s roof, let it not be his roof. The Kli Yakar adds on (in the name of "some say") to the approach that what is supposed to happen will happen anyway, as follows. Possibly, the person who needs to fall will fall from the very house that he was supposed to – despite the fence. He continues to explain the rationale of the mitzva according to this – "the fence saves only he who was not fit to fall." It is not clear if he means that the saved person would not have fallen or that he would have fallen elsewhere or died in another way, assuming it was not destined how and where he would die.

The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 546) relates to a different philosophical possibility. He posits that great people are above the rules of nature, allowing such tzaddikim as Avraham and Chananya, Mishael, and Azaria to escape alive from furnaces. Most people, though, will be harmed if they are in situations that nature dictates will cause harm. He quotes Chazal as saying that when one relies upon a miracle, he does not receive the miracle. The gemara (Shabbat 32a) adds on that if he does merit a miracle, the miracle is reduced from his merits. Thus, posits the Sefer Hachinuch, if one stands on a roof without a fence, he may die even if he was not slated to die. This is in line with Tosafot (Ketubot 30a) who says that one should not put himself in a dangerous situation, "for certainly a person is able to kill himself."

These Rishonim extend the idea of not "relying on a miracle." It does not take a miracle to spend time on roof without a fence and not fall (I have been on my roof many times and was never saved by the fence). Rather, the fence just reduces the risk a little more. They posit apparently that if 1,000 Jews (not tzaddikim like Avraham) without a decree to die decide to ignore proper safety precautions and enter a 1/100 chance of death situation, approximately 10 will die from it. This is an important opinion to consider for those who, to use just a couple of examples, drive less carefully than they should, smoke, eat unhealthily, or ignore the risks of dangerous infectious diseases.
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