The temptation to get that perfect selfie can have tragic consequences. More than 250 people have lost their lives picturing themselves at a toxic lake in Siberia.
The Torah’s advice is enunciated in a verse in this week’s portion: Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem, which Rav Hirsch translates as: “You shall take very good care of yourselves.” [Devarim 4:15]
Later in the Torah, in parshat 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 such as letting a vicious dog run free or leaning a defective ladder against a wall – or leaving a dangerous building site unattended or unfenced.
Nevertheless, that does not mean we can never take risks. Life would be boring without a sense of adventure.
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. In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read, Benafsho Yavi Lachmo, “At risk to his life, he brings home his bread.” There is a blessing offering a measure of protection against risk to those who are engaged in earning a parnassah.
If the risk taking is simply for adventure what are the considerations? Here the criteria are what the Sages term: 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 difficult process. As well as the verse cautioning us to take 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!”