Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )
Being safety-conscious is a good idea. For over 3000 years the Torah has been teaching us the importance of maintaining a safe and secure personal environment. In this week's Torah portion for instance, we learn how a person who builds a home should take special precautions to make sure there are no safety hazards. "Make a protective fence around your roof so you will not place (the responsibility for) blood in your house if someone falls from it." God wants us to be conscious of each other's safety and live healthy, long lives.
In our story, a boy learns a poignant lesson about how to look out for others' safety.
The short walk home from the local Shop-way supermarket wasn't easy for Mr. Golden. The older man was trying hard to balance in front of him a big bag of groceries that was piled up so high he could barely see where he was going.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the driveway of the condo where he lived. "Thank goodness, I'm almost home," he thought to himself. "This bag was heavier than I thought it would..."
Just then he felt his legs slip out from under him. SPLAT! Down went Mr. Golden on the sidewalk - and all his groceries too.
Fortunately, he managed to catch himself and didn't get hurt, but unfortunately his groceries didn't fare as well.
There was now what looked like quite an interesting piece of "abstract art" on the sidewalk consisting of smashed eggs, squashed tomatoes, and sloshing soda bottles, one of which was still squirting out like a crazed water fountain.
As he got his wits about him, Mr. Golden noticed the cause of his dramatic fall. A shiny blue bicycle was lying right across the middle of the sidewalk. On it was written in clear letters, "Property of Michael Morris, Apt. 4A."
Mr. Golden first cleaned off remnants of his grocery order from the sidewalk, and moved the bike out of the way to prevent a "repeat performance" by any other unsuspecting neighbor. Then he made his way over to 4A and rang the bell.
Mrs. Morris, Mike's mom, opened the door. The red-faced, frustrated neighbor told her the whole story. She apologized profusely, and offered to pay for the broken items. After Mr. Golden had calmed down a bit and left, Mrs. Morris marched straight to her son's room.
It took a while before Mike heard her knock as he was blasting his latest CD. "Yeah Mom?" he finally answered, coming to the door.
"Michael, did you ride your bike this morning?" she asked, trying to stay calm.
"Sure I did Mom, it was a great biking day." said Michael with a smile, relieved that she wasn't coming to tell him to turn down the music.
"Well, where did you leave it when you finished?" she went on with a bit of an edge in her voice.
Michael scratched his head. "Gee, I don't really remember," he said. "I just left it, you know, around."
"Maybe on the sidewalk?" led his mother.
"That's right," said Michael, impressed with his mom's memory.
"Michael," his mother sighed, "you can't just do that. Leaving it there was dangerous for people who had to walk by." She explained what happened to Mr. Golden. "We each have a responsibility to keep our environment safe. Part of that is being careful where we leave our things. Now please go out there right away and move your bike before someone else trips."
Michael realized he should have been more careful. He went downstairs and found Mr. Golden, broom in hand picking up the last broken remnants of his groceries. Michael surveyed the mess and felt awful that he had caused his neighbor to trip.
"Please, let me clean up for you Mr. Golden," the boy said. "I'm really sorry about leaving my bike here. It's the least I can do."
"Well, that's nice of you to offer, young man. And I accept your apology. You surely didn't do it on purpose. Here, we'll work together - you sweep and I'll hold the dustpan."
From that day on Michael was always careful to park his bike in the bike rack out of everybody's way. He would even remind his friends to do the same. The extra effort was well worth the good feeling he got, knowing that he was helping to keep his neighborhood safe.
Q. How would you feel if you knew that somebody fell and got hurt from something you left lying around?
A. I would feel bad that through being careless I had caused somebody to get hurt. I would want to be more careful next time.
Q. How did Michael feel once he started putting away his bike properly? A. He felt good about himself since he was doing something to help keep his neighbors and friends safe.
Q. Since Michael only left his bike on the sidewalk, and didn't push or trip someone purposely - should he still be held responsible?
A. The Torah teaches us to be extra considerate of other people. It's not enough just to refrain from actively hurting them, we even have to try to prevent situations in which people could hurt themselves. In this case Michael's leaving the bike on a public sidewalk where someone could trip on it would be considered negligent.
Q. What are some ways we can help to keep things safe in our home or neighborhood?
A. One thing that we can do is make sure that no dangerous household chemicals are left in places where little kids can reach them. Another thing we can do is to pick up or move any slippery objects - such as fruit peels - from places where people walk. If you keep your eyes open you'll find many ways to help keep things safe. This shows we care about other people.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Should an individual be free to use his property any way he desires, or does society have a right to require him to use it safely and responsibly?
A. Individual property rights are legitimate and shouldn't be unnecessarily restricted. However, if this usage is going to harm others, it could be that the common welfare takes priority. For example, anti-pollution regulations puts the public's right to breath clean air and drink clean water above the individual's "right" to pollute.
Q. Is there anything wrong with engaging in a dangerous or harmful activity, if it couldn't possibly harm anyone except to the person himself?
A. To answer this, one must grapple with the question of who we are, and to whom does our body belong. Judaism views everything, even a person's own body, as a gift from God. Our bodies are on 'loan' from God to our souls, as vehicles with which to accomplish spiritual tasks in the physical world. Like any borrowed object, we should take care of our body - use it, but not abuse it. Every moment of life is precious, and the respect and care we owe ourselves is no less that that which we owe to others.