President John F. Kennedy once said: “Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is an orphan.” Human nature is to claim more than our fair share of credit when things go well, while avoiding responsibility for our failures.
The Torah recognizes this. In last week’s parshah, we read, “And you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me. Remember that it is Hashem your G-d who gives you the power to get wealth.’” Too often, we attribute our success to our wisdom and talents, forgetting that it was G-d who gave us the tools to succeed.
By contrast, we often attribute tragedy only to G-d. This can take many forms. Some of us affirm our emunah. We say the tragedy was G-d’s will and beyond our power to understand. Others question G-d’s justice, asking the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Either approach is essentially pinning the tragedy on G-d, while we let ourselves of the hook.
The past year has seen many tragedies: COVID-19, Meron, Givat Ze’ev, Surfside. My goal in writing this is not to point fingers or blame anyone, but to ask what we can learn from these tragedies.
I do not know whether COVID came from a lab or a market. I do know that G-d sent COVID for whatever reason. But G-d also sent us masks, social distancing, and vaccines to protect ourselves from COVID. The failure to take advantage of them has prolonged and exacerbated the pandemic.
In Meron, people warned for years that the site could not safely accommodate anywhere near the number of people who come on Lag BaOmer. Plans to limit the number of participants in the hilula were ignored by both the organizers and the government.
In Givat Ze’ev, the police warned the local council about the danger of holding an event in a building that did not have a certificate of occupancy and was unsafe to use.
In the Surfside condominium, cracks in the reinforced concrete that provided the structural support for the building and other problems with the construction were reported in 2018. A $15 million remedial program was approved but no work was ever done.
What we should learn from these tragedies is that public health regulations, building codes, and occupancy regulations are not part of some nefarious scheme to oppress us. They are meant to protect us. They are the means that G-d has given us to protect ourselves. We ignore them at our peril.
In a few weeks, we will read Parshas Ki Seitzei, where it says, “When you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” We are not allowed to simply say that G-d will protect people from falling off the roof. We are required to act responsibly by building a fence. If we fail to do so and tragedy strikes, the guilt is on us.
Rashi explains that even if the person who falls off the roof was meant to die, we should not allow his death to take place by our actions.
This mitzvah is not just about building a fence on a roof; it is a command for us to act responsibly by taking the necessary precautions to prevent tragedy.
A new year will soon begin. If we want it to be better than the one that will soon end, let us start by giving G-d more credit for our success, while taking more responsibility for ourselves.