Va’etchanan – Shabbat Nachamu


With the holiday season upon us, many will be looking to have a much-deserved break. Some may be wanting to have a quiet relaxing time. Others may be seeking something more exciting.

Is there a Jewish angle on having an adventure? The Torah fortuitously sets out a general principle in a verse in this week’s parasha: Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem, which translates as: “You shall take very good care of yourselves.” [Devarim 4:15]

Later in the Torah, in parashat Ki Teitzei, we will read of the requirement to build a fence or a parapet for the roof of a house that is accessible for use. Our Sages extended this commandment to all cases of danger for which the property owner would be responsible. For example: letting a dangerous dog run free or leaning a defective ladder against a wall, or leaving an unsafe building site unattended or unfenced.

However, that does not mean we can never take risks. Life would be boring without a sense of adventure.

So, how do we balance risk-taking with the injunction to take good care of ourselves? The great eighteenth century rabbinic authority, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (1713-1793), in a responsum on hunting, writes that in the context of earning a livelihood a greater degree of risk is permissible. We hear echoes of this in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Benafsho Yavi Lachmo, “At risk to his life, he brings home his bread.” Hunting for food is a permissible risk, points out Rabbi Landau. Hunting for sport is a different situation

If the risk-taking is simply for adventure what, then, are the considerations? The Sages define the criteria as: Dashu Ba Rabim, “Many have trodden this path.” [Yevamot 72a]. In other words, does society-at-large regard this as a reasonable risk? Or, to put it in other terms: how easy will it be to obtain insurance cover for the risk that is envisaged?

Balancing these issues can be a complex process. In addition to the verse cautioning us to take good care of our lives, it is also worth remembering the advice of the great teacher of Jewish ethics, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) who used to say: “The eleventh commandment is, don’t be a fool!”

Wishing you all a safe and happy summer.