“Assail the Midianites and defeat them for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you” (Numbers 25:16-18).
This is G-d’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 prooftext underlying the religious obligation to use deadly force in defense of one’s life and wellbeing.
Discussing the proper response to a home burglary (Exodus 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 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 of the Numbers: “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 Tanhuma.)
Mindful of recent events–the deteriorating situation of Israel and its neighbors, as well as the daily occurrences of random violence in Western countries committed against innocents in schools, houses of worship, workplaces, restaurants, and (as I write this) media newsrooms—it seems reasonable to aver that the time has come for Jews living in the Diaspora– as a members of a targeted community or merely as individual citizens– to take reflect seriously on this Talmudic imperative, and make learning personal self-defense a Jewish educational 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. What follows is one salient point to be considered.
“If someone comes to kill you, kill him first” is the oft-rendered 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 are calling for “a pre-emptive strike” against an attacker who intends to harm, even kill you. But why do they use the word “haskhem”? Why not “koom” (rise up) or “hakdem” (anticipate)? Why, specifically “hashkem”?
A possible answer may be found in Genesis 22, the story of the Akedah–specifically how the Torah reports Abraham’s response to G-d’s request to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice: “VAYASH’KEM Avraham baboker…/Abraham got up early in the morning…” The text continues: Abraham saddled his donkey, took two of his servants, etc. (Genesis 22: 3 ff.) 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 (Genesis 22: 2: Kach-NA/“Please take your son…”). But for us, protecting our lives IS a command: “Only take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Every morning the praying Jew affirms that our lives are given to us by G-d; 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 make clear, when we may have to take another’s life to protect the one given to us in stewardship.
Our Christian neighbors believe that we live in messianic times. For us Jews, messianic times will come when Isaiah 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. In the US, we have recently been reminded that human beings are not “animals”. Still, they do often choose to act in horrible, beastly ways. This is why we would do well to also consider the prophet Joel’s “tweak” on Isaiah: “Prepare for battle…Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.” (Joel 4:9-10)
It is said that a charging bull doesn’t care if you’re a vegetarian. Indeed, in our “messy”, unredeemed world, anyone of us may be faced with a charging bull—in a parking lot, a store, a restaurant, a newsroom, even at home. Finding ourselves in such circumstances, we may not like how we may HAVE to respond. But like Abraham, we are called to be prepared for that eventuality– to “get up early” and to do it what may need to be done—even with sadness and regret.