Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Another Difficult Rashi on the Parasha

“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.” (22:8)

Rashi is bothered by the unusual wording of the passuk here: “ki yipol hanofel.” This phrase is refers to the person who tragically falls off a roof which does not have a railing. The phrase talks about : “when the faller falls.” Why does it not say: “when a person falls”?

Rashi comments:

“He deserved to fall. However, despite this, you should not be the one to cause his death; for good things are brought about by the agency of the innocent, and bad things are brought about by the guilty.”

Now Rashi is saying something incredible here. Why is the person who falls from the roof described as “the faller?” Because he was destined to fall. He is a guilty! And you should be careful not to bring about his death even if he deserves it.


Rashi expresses a similar view in his comments to Shemot. There, the passuk is talking about a situation of an accidental murder. The verse states:

“He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it by design, but God forced his hand, I will assign you a place to which he can flee” (21:12-13)

Clearly, these pesukim talk about accidental murder and even hint at the institution of the refuge cities.

Rashi is moved to explain the unusual phrase here: God forced his hand. This is what he says:

“God forced his hand: He arranged that it would fall into his hands… And why should this act emerge from him? This is what the Biblical David refers to (Shmuel I 24:13) ‘As the ancient proverb states: from the wicked will come evil..’ That “ancient proverb” is the Torah… and where does the Torah state this? - ‘and God forced his hand.’ What is the verse referring to? There are two individuals. One killed accidentally and another murdered in cold blood. There were no witnesses for either act, and hence this one was not exiled (to the refuge city) and the other was not put to death. God arranges that they both convene at a particular venue. The accidental murderer is climbing up a ladder, and the deliberate murderer is sitting underneath it. The man on the ladder falls down and kills the man underneath; people witness the event, and hence the man on the ladder is sent to exile. He who killed by accident goes to exile, and he who was the cold-blooded killer is killed.”

Now, this view of divine justice is quite mind-boggling. Is Rashi claiming that each and every murder is truly part of a divine chain of punishment? Is it possible that every fatal work accident, every death, is a direct act of God?

I think that this is precisely what Rashi is saying. That every death is destined. Every accidental death is not accidental at all.

If we accept this point of view, just one question remains, and this is the question raised by the roof and the parapet. This person who falls is already sentenced to death. That is why he is called a “nophel” – the falling one. When the person falls, it is because he was destined to fall. But the question is – who is going to be the killer? Who is going to be the person to cause his death. The Torah says; it should not be you! Or in R. Hoffman’s words:

“We may not cause the death of any man, even if God has decreed it, due to his sins”

This is raised in a famous Mishna about Hillel in Pirkei Avot:

“He saw a skull floating upon the water (of a river?) He said to it: Because you drowned somebody, you were drowned; and the person who drowned you, will find his end by being drowned.” (2:7)

Once again, the philosophy works in the following way. You are responsible for your actions. You are forbidden to do an un-ethical act EVEN IF you are absolutely certain that a certain person “deserves” it. You must keep the law. God will worry about sorting out the system so that everybody receives his or her just desserts, his reward or punishment.


I have always found this Mishna, and these other sources quoted here, rather thought provoking. Is the world so perfectly run, so well balanced? Don’t we feel that there are many unjustified deaths? Is it true that every person leaves the world at precisely the right time? It is not impossible to say that this is indeed the case. But the age-old question of “Tzaddik v’Ra Lo”, the philosophical discussion of theodicy, is a reflection of the fact that from our human perspective, the world (- God?) at times seems grossly unfair and sometimes, brutally cruel.

But from the positive side, these sources have always boosted the side of moral integrity in certain moments of pressure. There are always those moments when we are about to do something irresponsible – to break a rule, to yell at somebody, to act wrongfully – because “he deserves no better” and “anyway that is the standard that everyone has around here.” This mitzva teaches us that we have to watch our actions irrespective of the excuses. We have to retain our sense of what is right and act upon it, because we know that this is what is right, that which God demands from us. This, even if the environment in which we find ourselves seems grossly unfair. We bear a heavy load of moral responsibility.

No comments: