Smoke and Mirrors


Parashat Ki Teze 5781

This week a massive fire devastated the forests of the mountains just west of Jerusalem. As of this moment, Wednesday evening, it has been brought under control, though it’s not yet fully extinguished. The fire had started Sunday afternoon, and from Efrat, where we were visiting, fifteen kilometers away, we had seen the enormous, thick smoke cloud covering half the sky over Jerusalem. The flames were driven by the strong west winds that come up in the mountains after mid-day. Fifteen hundred firefighters from all over Israel, including several Palestinian crews, worked together courageously day and night for fifty-two hours, to bring the fire under control. Ultimately, over 25,000 dunams of forest were destroyed (about 6,200 acres), wildlife perished in the thousands, two thousand homes had to be evacuated from the towns and villages in the area and some were burned – but there was no loss of human life, thank God. Experts assess that it will take decades for the forests to be rehabilitated.  Authorities are convinced this fire was started by human agency, though it’s not yet clear whether it was by intent or by carelessness.

In the laws of damages, analyzed at length in the Gemara Baba Kama, fire is one of the main categories of damage for which a person is held responsible, even though “another force is mixed in it (Baba Kama 3b).” If a person flicks a smoldering cigarette butt near flammable brush in hot, dry, windy conditions and a fire ignites and spreads, that person is fully responsible and liable for all the damage that ensues. That is, we are fully responsible for damage, not only by our own direct actions, but by potentially destructive processes we negligently set in motion even when they are also propelled by other factors and forces such as fuel and wind. The Torah, that is, God, holds us responsible to take those factors and forces into consideration, to be careful not only about our immediate action, but all the foreseeably possible consequences of our action.

In Avot 2:9 Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asks his top students:

אמר להם צאו וראו איזוהי דרך ישרה שידבק בה האדם

Go out and see what the straight path is that a person should adhere to.

רבי שמעון אומר הרואה את הנולד

Rabbi Shimon [bar Yochai] says: one who sees what is born.


The commentators explain this means to see and understand all the possible consequences of our actions and non-actions, to prevent harm and enhance benefits, to others as well as to ourselves. To truly understand all the consequences of our actions requires an accurate grasp of causality in all its forms, including natural processes, psychological processes, social and political processes, spiritual processes. The Torah requires us to be knowledgeable in every form of knowledge, to be mature, wise and responsible human beings. “An ignorant person cannot be righteous (Avot 2:5).”

Looking ahead to understand causal connections and taking full responsibility to prevent harm is one of the core themes of this week’s Torah portion. While the parashah seems to be a miscellany of halakhot, in fact most of the mitzvot and halakhot revolve around taking responsibility for what happens in the world around us and behaving responsibly in the challenging situations of life.

Rashi points out a causal sequence between the first three cases of the parashah: humane treatment of a woman captured in war; maintaining the rights of the first born even if he is the child of a second, less-favored wife; and punishment of the inveterately rebellious son (Dt. 21:10-21). Based on the Gemara Sanhedrin 107a, Rashi explains that if a person marries a woman captured in war just to satisfy lust, he will end up bringing emotional conflict into his home and disparaging this poor woman, and her child who is born is likely to develop an unhealthy moral character. A thoughtful, ethically responsible person will control his urges and avoid this downward trajectory from the start.

Maimonides notes that the mitzvah obligation in our parashah to place a sturdy fence around a flat roof to prevent someone from falling off serves as an example to anticipate and take precautions against all possible harm that is likely to result from any dangerous situation, including dangers to health (Dt. 22:8; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder and Protecting Life 11:1-6). In the parashah we are instructed to secure and protect the lost property of others, to assist others in relieving the suffering of animals, to act compassionately towards all creatures, to treat others with respect and care, to protect and provide for the powerless and disenfranchised and take responsibility for each other.

The mutating pandemic, which is raging in Israel right now and around the world, behaves very much like a fire. Each of us is responsible to understand how the virus spreads and to take every precaution to protect ourselves and others from contracting and spreading it. In this case, we ourselves are the fuel for the pathogen, and our breath is the wind, and it is spread by our direct action. We are responsible for our actions and our inactions. The proven precautions are physical distancing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated.  Alarming and profoundly disappointing is the significant number of people, including many who think of themselves as Torah-observant Jews, who still refuse to abide by these necessary precautions, who spread lies about the vaccines, make light of the deadly and debilitating virus, engage in immature magical thinking and endanger the lives and health of others as well as themselves. In their blindness to the consequences of their actions and their foolish refusal to act responsibly, they transgress some of the most important mitzvot of the Torah. A crisis such as this pandemic holds up a mirror to our ethical character. How we react reflects the level of our moral, intellectual and spiritual development, not just the values to which we give lip-service, but the values we really take seriously. We each need to take a good look at ourselves in this mirror.

Each of us finds ourselves held at the center of our world, mutually connected with every other person, every other creature, responsible for all that goes on around us. As Emmanuel Levinas sums it up: “The word ‘I’ means to be answerable for everything and for everyone (“Substitution,” Basic Philosophical Writings, 90).” In this month of Elul, a time for rededicating ourselves to ethical improvement, may we rededicate ourselves to the very essence of the ethical vision of Torah – to be mature human beings who step up to take full responsibility for what is happening in the world around us, to do our best to prevent harm and to further each other’s highest good.

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