Parshat Ki Tetze, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
“Careful, don’t step in the gutter!” My 3-year-old had heard this refrain before, but here I stood, at the edge of our front garden, warning for the upteenth time of the dangers of stepping into the gutter bordering the street. His older sister turned to me with a 4-year-old’s impeccable logic. “But the gutter is next to the street, it isn’t the actual street,” she argued expertly. Surely, the gutter isn’t a dangerous place to stand.
In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tetze, the Torah reminds us of a basic truth that has sustained the Jewish people through the passage of time since we first heard it at Sinai more than 3,000 years ago. When building a home, says the Torah, we must make a parapet for the roof in order that we won’t cause any harm to curious children atop the roof. On any flat roof, this law requires a fence to protect our children.
The gutter, I explain to my children, is another type of fence. In addition to its more civic drainage function, it also acts as our personal fence around the garden. By creating an additional buffer zone before the street, the gutter serves to protect us in case we take an erroneous step. Remove the fence, and the danger moves a lot closer.
In a similar vein, the mitzvot that our rabbis have instituted after the Torah was given are considered to be integral building blocks of this fence around Jewish life. By observing one good deed, a person protects himself from violating another.
In the early 1950s, during the height of the Korean War, a young Jewish American soldier asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing before shipping out to Korea. The Rebbe cryptically counseled him to be particular about the Jewish practice of washing one’s hands before eating bread, even during combat.
Years later, the veteran said he owed his life to the Rebbe’s advice and his observance of this Jewish practice. One day, the soldier wandered away from his platoon in search of water to wash his hands before eating his C ration. While he was away from his comrades, a shell struck their position and killed everyone in his platoon.
Chasidic thought offers a third dimension to the practice of building a fence on our homes. In truth, regardless of our daily occupations, we are all homemakers in this world. G-d placed us in this world to improve and constantly renovate G-d’s home — this world — through living Jewishly and joyfully, and spreading the peaceful, meaningful messages of the Torah. With every mitzvah that we perform, we add light into G-d’s world, further beautifying G-d’s home.
This is easier said than done; our lives today are saturated with a thousand other ways of life that don’t always jibe with who we are as a Jew. At times, it can feel more convenient to ignore our identity and blend in with trends and ways of life du jour.
With this in mind, we can understand how critical it is to create a fence around our identity as proudly Jewish individuals, unafraid and unapologetic in our commitments to a Jewish way of life. Take the time to filter out the unnecessary social media influences, or set aside time in your day when you can be disconnected from technology so that you can study a Torah lesson. Take on an extra good deed and you’ll add a little more light in your day that will fortify the fence around your life and keep you out of the “gutter,” which is never a safe place for pedestrians. JN
Rabbi Mendy Rimler is the outreach director at the Chabad Jewish Student Center at ASU.