Be prepared…even with regret
By Rabbi Cary Kozberg, Temple Sholom, Springfield
“Assail the Midianites and defeat them for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you (Num. 25:16-18).”
This is God’s command to Moses, after rewarding Aaron’s grandson Pinchas for his response to a public and wanton act of apostasy committed by a prominent Israelite with a Midianite princess.
Although the original intention of this command is a mere memory of our ancestors’ desert experiences, the words continue to have a moral bearing on contemporary Judaism: they are the proof text underlying the religious obligation to use deadly force in defense of one’s life and wellbeing.
Discussing the proper response to a home burglary (Ex. 22:1-2), the Talmud explains that because a homeowner is likely to resist someone breaking in to rob him, the burglar is prepared to kill the homeowner. Thus, if the homeowner kills the burglar, he is not guilty of murder, as the sages of the Talmud teach: “the Torah teaches: Im ba l’horgakh, hashkem l’horgo/If someone comes to kill you, kill him first (Sanhedrin 72a).”
Although this specific mandate is not found in the Torah itself, it is derived from a rabbinic explanation from the Numbers passage: “because the Midianites continually devised evil plots to assail the Israelites, the Israelites were permitted to go out and strike them (Sanhedrin 72a, Steinsaltz edition p. 48, quoting Midrash Tanchuma).”
Mindful of recent events — the deteriorating situation of Israel and its neighbors, as well as the daily occurrences of random violence in this country committed against innocents in schools, churches, workplaces, and Waffle Houses — perhaps the time has come for Jews as a community and as individuals to make learning Judaism’s take on self-defense a priority.
To this end, I recommend as a good introduction to the subject Rabbi Basil Herring’s Jewish Ethics and Halakhah for Our Time, Vol II. In this limited space however, I wish to focus on understanding better the imperative, “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.”
This is the usual translation of the Hebrew, im ba l’horgakh, hashkem l’horgo.
However, a more literal translation would be “if someone comes to kill you, get up early (hashkem) to kill him.”
Clearly, the rabbis of the Talmud are calling for “a preemptive strike” against an attacker who intends to harm, even kill you.
But why do they use the word hashkem? Why not koom (rise up) or hakdem (anticipate)? Why, specifically hashkem?
A possible answer may be found in Gen. 22, the story of the Akedah — specifically how the Torah reports Abraham’s response to God’s request to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice: “Vayash’kem Avraham baboker…/Abraham got up early in the morning…”
The text continues on: Abraham saddled his donkey, took two of his servants, etc. In other words, he prepared for what needed to be done with all due diligence and proper intention.
Significantly, the text relates nothing about what Abraham was feeling. There is no mention of any sadness, regret, or anger.
On the contrary, traditional commentaries understand the word vayashkem to connote Abraham’s enthusiasm and zeal in fulfilling this Divine request.
But how is it possible that Abraham felt only enthusiasm and zeal, but no regret or sadness? If, as the text says, Isaac was his beloved son, is it conceivable that Abraham did not feel conflicted at all?
Perhaps he did feel sadness, regret, and anger, but these had to be put aside. Perhaps Abraham not only had to prepare for the journey itself, but also had to prepare his soul for what he didn’t want to do, but knew he had to do.
It should be noted that Abraham was fulfilling a request, not a command: “Please take your son…” But for us, protecting our lives is a command: “Only take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously (Deut. 4:9).”
Every morning, the praying Jew affirms that our lives are given to us by God; we are stewards of our lives, not owners.
As stewards, we are responsible to the Owner for their safekeeping. Thus, even though we are taught to shun violence whenever possible because life is sacred, there are times, as the sages of the Talmud make clear, when we may have to take another’s life to protect the one given to us in stewardship.
Our Christian neighbors believe these are messianic times. For us Jews, messianic times will come when Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled, and we will be able to “beat our swords into plowshares.”
In the meantime, we still live in “messy” times: the world is not yet redeemed.
People may not be animals per se, but they often choose to act in horrible, beastly ways.
Therefore, we would also do well to consider the words of the prophet Joel: “Prepare for battle…Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears (Joel 3:9-10).”
It is said that a charging bull doesn’t care if you’re a vegetarian. Indeed, in our messy, unredeemed world, anyone may be faced with a charging bull: in a parking lot, a store, a restaurant, even at home.
Finding ourselves in such circumstances, we may not like what we may have to do. But like Abraham, we must be prepared to get up early and do what we have to do anyway — even with sadness and regret.