This week’s Torah portion is Ki Teitze: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet/ guard rail for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house when/ if a faller should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).
Rashi, the medieval commentator, links this verse about building parapets to the verse that immediately precedes it. That verse prohibits taking a mother bird and her young on the same day. Rashi wrote:
“If you have fulfilled the command of letting a mother bird go, you will in the end be privileged to build a new house and to fulfil the command of making a parapet, for one good deed brings another good deed in its train, and you will attain to a vineyard (22:9), fields (22:10) and fine garments (22:11—12). It is for this reason [to suggest this] that these sections are put in juxtaposition” (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 1).
People respond to the challenges of the world in different ways. Some of us are active, loud, aggressive. We raise our voices in protest, pray with our feet, lead by example, use our entire bodies when necessary. Others of us shy away from any type of physical confrontation, but perhaps feel comfortable writing a letter to an elected official, signing a petition, or posting on social media. Others of us freeze, seized with fear and worry, perhaps hoping that if we keep our heads low and our voices quiet the whole situation will blow over in time.
What Rashi teaches us here is that our good and bad deeds are not discrete, disconnected acts. Our deeds are interwoven. Doing a mitzvah leads on to other good deeds, impacting not only those around us but also, more deeply, ourselves. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah — one good deed brings another good deed in its train.
Acts of compassion for animals lead us to compassion for humans. Putting a guard rail on the roofs of our houses ensures that people won’t fall off. The verse about the parapet contains an oddity: It refers to the person who might fall off your roof as “a faller,” not “a person.” The implication is that someone really would have fallen off your roof if you hadn’t build the guard rail. What begins with a concern for the feelings of a bird ends with saving a human life.
Don’t start big. You don’t have to begin by organizing a rally to make a difference. Start with small acts of thoughtfulness and compassion. Every action makes a difference because good follows good. The complexity of the world makes us feel impotent. But we are not.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila and a community chaplain. Rabbi Joel Levy is the head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.