Blog - Torah Insights

Tunneling into the Castle

c.jpgTunneling into the Castle  

Immediately after the great revelation at Sinai, the Torah continues with the portion of Mishpatim, the logical laws which govern the dealings between people. The Mishpatim differ from the Chukim, the commandments which are categorized as decrees.

Yet, the Mishpatim are part of the Torah. While they may seem similar to laws in other systems of law, upon deeper examination we find the Torah’s values embedded within them.

We will examine one law in the portion of Mishpatim, and compare and contrast the Torah’s approach with the legal system in the United States.

Suppose I am lying in bed, in the middle of the night, and wake up in terror to see an intruder trying to burglarize my home. Suppose I have the option to escape my home unnoticed, am I allowed, instead, to use deadly force to prevent the theft?

Do I have to retreat, if I am safely able to do so, or may I kill the intruder to protect my home?

In most states, including Connecticut, the homeowner may use deadly force to protect his home, the legal basis for this is called the Castle Doctrine: 

The Castle Doctrine is a common law doctrine stating that an individual has no duty to retreat when in his or her home, or “castle,” and may use reasonable force, including deadly force, to defend his or her property, person, or another. Outside of the “castle,” however, an individual has a duty to retreat, if able to do so, before using reasonable force…

Forty-six states, including Connecticut, have incorporated the Castle Doctrine into law. Connecticut law justifies the use of reasonable physical force, including deadly force, in defense of premises. Connecticut courts have recognized the common law privilege to challenge an unlawful entry into one's home, to the extent that a person's conduct does not rise to the level of a crime. Deadly force is justified in defense of one's property by a person who is privileged to be on the premises and who reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent an attempt by the criminal trespasser to commit any crime of violence.[1]

The law, obviously, permits one to kill in self defense. The Castle Doctrine, however, goes much further: it allows one to kill in order to prevent an intruder from entering and damaging his home. The homeowner does not have to believe that his life is at risk to be protected by the Castle Defense; as long as the homeowner reasonably believes that the intruder wants to commit arson or burglary, he would be protected by the castle Doctrine if he kills the intruder. 

What would the Torah say about the Castle Doctrine? Would the Torah allow for defending property at the expense of the intruder's life? In this week’s Parsha the Torah states:

If the thief is discovered while tunneling (breaking in), and he is struck and dies, (it is as if) he has no blood[2]. 

Like most laws in the Torah, this law is written in concise language, the details and explanations are elaborated on in the Talmud. Rava, the great Talmudic sage, poses the question[3]: what is the reason for the law of the intruder who tunnels? He then offers the following explanation: the intruder enters the home, despite knowing that a person will try to protect his own property. This is ample evidence that the intruder is prepared to use force against the homeowner. Therefore, says the Torah, the homeowner has the right to kill the intruder; as the Torah's position is "if someone comes to kill you anticipate ("get up early" to) him and kill him first".

Rava explains that the law has nothing to do with the right to protect one's property, but has everything to do with the right of self defense.

Rava’s great innovation is that we consider the intruder a threat to life even if it seems that all he wants is jewelry, and he has not yet shown any sign of wanting to attack the homeowner. We don’t have to wait for the escalation of violence, as we are permitted to assume that the intruder will in fact use deadly force, when the homeowner will try to stop him from stealing; the homeowner, therefore, may use deadly force first to protect his life.

In other words, merely entering a home in order to steal, with the expectation that the homeowner is home, is in itself the greatest act of aggression that permits the homeowner to kill in self defense.

[Jewish Law offers important exceptions to the right to kill an intruder: for example, Maimonides rules:Different rules apply with regard to a thief who stole and departed, or one who did not steal, but was caught leaving the tunnel through which he entered the home. Since he turned his back on the house and is no longer intent on killing its owner, he may not be slain.”[4]]

In summary: although the Torah’s approach seems similar to the Common Law’s Castle doctrine, there is a fundamental difference between them. Namely, the Castle Doctrine claims that in some cases one may protect his own property at the expense of the intruder's life, the Torah, on the other hand, says no such thing. Although the Torah would allow one to kill an intruder, the rationale has nothing to do with protecting property. Rather, since we know the intruder is prepared to threaten your life, therefore, you may protect your life at the expense of the intruder's life.



[2] Exodus 22, 1.

[3] Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 72a: “Rava said: what is the reason for the law of breaking in? Because it is certain that no man is inactive where his property is concerned; therefore this one [the thief] must have reasoned, ‘If I go there, he [the owner] will oppose me and prevent me; but if he does I will kill him.’ Hence the Torah decreed, ‘If someone comes to kill you, anticipate him and kill him first’.”

[4] Maimonides, Laws of Theft, Chapter 9 Halacha 11. See Chapter 9 for additional important exceptions.  

The Torah of Peace

MS.jpgThe Torah of Peace

The number one is an important number in Judaism. G-d is one. The messianic era, when the world will reach perfection, is described by the Prophet as a time when “the Lord will be one and his name will be one”.[1]

Yet, in the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the number that we keep hearing about is not the number one, but rather the number three:

In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.[2]

Indeed the Talmud draws our attention to many aspects of the story that are associated with the number three:

“Blessed is G-d who has given us a Torah of three [Scripture, Prophets and Writings], to a nation of three [The Jewish people who are comprised of Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites], through [a man] who is third [Moses was the third child to be born in his family], on the third day [of preparation for the giving of the Torah], in the third month”.

It seems then, that the purpose of the Torah is expressed in the number three. The number one represents singularity, the number two represents division, and the number three represents peace and harmony.

To Illustrate:

Scenario number one: Person A is giving a lecture; he is feeling great about himself, for after all it seems that his opinion is uncontested. Nobody is calling out and objecting. He therefore is sure that his opinion must be correct. The problem, however, is that person A happens to be giving his lecture to an empty room with no one else present. Person A represents the state of number one, he is alone in his environment. There may not be war but it is not peace, for peace requires two entities coming together, while person A is only a single individual.  

Scenario number two: And then it happens. Person B enters the lecture hall and before long he is arguing with person A. They are disagreeing about everything. They seem to have opposing perspectives on every issue. They are divided.

Scenario number three: Person C enters the lecture hall and observes persons A and B arguing. After listening for a while he cries: “hey! the two of you are saying the same thing in different words! if you just stop to listen for a moment you will discover that, in fact, there is no disagreement at all!”. Person C then is the third person bringing the other two together. They are finally united.

This is the story of creation.

G-d was the only existence. There was nothing else aside from him. He was one. There was only one perspective, but that was only because there was no one else to disagree. 

Sensing the inherent problem with this form of unity, G-d created the universe. As expected, as soon as the universe was created, disagreement erupted. From G-d’s perspective, he is the definition of reality, after all he is the creator of the universe. The people walking the earth, however, disagree. The human consciousness feels that he or she is at the center of the universe, that the ultimate reality is the physical one, and that spirituality, while an interesting idea, is an abstract intellectual idea that has no bearing on the concrete reality.

These are two very different perspectives; thus the dispute lives on.

Ant then, at last, the time for the third perspective has arrived. The Torah given at Sinai teaches us to listen carefully to the universe around us, to peel away the layers of existence and to discover that the dueling voices of reality are, in fact, in no dispute at all. That the universe, albeit in its own way, declares the greatness of its creator.

Thus in the third month we discover the third perspective.

Through the Torah we discover that true peace is found in the number three, in the third perspective which understands that the seemingly contradictory perspectives of G-d and the world are in no dispute at all. That, in truth, at its core, the universe wants nothing more than to reconnect with its divine source.[3]



[1] Zechariah 14:9.

[2] Exodus 19:1.

[3] Bases on the teachings of the Rebbe, Emor 5749. 

The Road to Freedom

The Road to Freedom

Clearly the Jewish people were looking for trouble.

After decades of slavery Pharaoh was finally forced to set the Jewish people free. In last week’s Parsha we read about how Pharaoh literally chased them out of Egypt:

“And Pharaoh arose at night… he called for Moses and Aaron at night, and he said, "Get up and get out from among my people, both you, as well as the children of Israel…  the Egyptians took hold of the people to hasten to send them out of the land”.  

One would expect the Jews to be overjoyed, to move as fast as they could towards their homeland, to the land of their dreams. Yet, the people were in no rush to leave. In fact, after traveling three days, fulfilling G-d’s commandment to Moshe, they actually turned back towards Egypt, thus inviting Pharaoh to chase them.

The Jews were free. They should have moved on. Why are they heading back? Why were they looking for trouble?  

When Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt, had they proceeded on their way, and traveled to Israel, they would never have been free. Because freedom means to be the master of one’s destiny, while the Jews were in fact attaining their freedom on account of Pharaoh. Their oppressor left them no choice and cast them out of his land and into freedom. They were still passively following Pharaoh's orders. The orders may have changed, previously they were commanded to build cities and now they were commanded to exit the land, but the psychological state of the people was still the same: they were following orders.

Freedom cannot be granted. Freedom must be taken.

Freedom cannot be granted by an oppressor. If you are free only because your oppressor ordered you free, then, in truth, you are not free at all.

To be free one must defy the oppressor. The courage that generates the act of defiance is the stuff of true freedom. The courage needed to defy, is in fact what is psychologically liberating.

In last week’s Parsha, the people left Egypt as a result of Pharaoh's command. In this week’s Parsha the people caused Pharaoh to have a change a heart. They travel back towards Egypt, affording Pharaoh the encouragement and the opportunity to order the Jews back into Egypt. Only now, when the people defy Pharaoh, when they are free not on account of Pharaoh, but rather despite Pharaoh, are they truly free.

We each have an inner Pharaoh who seeks to enslave us to our negative habits and tendencies. We are commanded to remember the Exodus every day of our life, in order to remind ourselves that we can be free of our inner Pharaoh. Often, however, the image of freedom we picture in our minds is one of our inner Pharaoh leaving us alone. We wish we were free. We wish we would just wake up one morning, and the Pharaoh would have released us from his grip. We wish our Pharaoh would grant us freedom.

Yet, as we have seen, freedom cannot be granted.

To be free means to have the courage to defy the oppressor. To stand up and say no. To do the right thing despite the command of our inner Pharaoh. To be free is to have the courage to say no to our inner tyrant.

The Jews turned back to defy Pharaoh, not because they were looking for trouble, but rather because they were looking for freedom.

For freedom cannot be granted. Freedom must be taken.  


No Place Like Home

Pesach.jpgNo Place Like Home 

The Passover Seder is the most practiced Mitzvah by 21st century Jews in the United States.

In 2013 the Pew Research center found that:

Attending a Seder is an extremely common practice for the group. While only 23% of U.S. Jews said they attend religious services at least monthly, 70% said they participated in a Seder last year.

Participation in a Seder is more common among Jewish Americans than any of the other practices we asked about, including fasting for all or part of Yom Kippur (53%) – often considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.[1]

Why is the Passover Seder so important to the Jewish people, even more so than other practices? What message does the Seder capture that, consciously or subconsciously, speaks to so many Jews today?

To understand this, we need to look at the very first Passover Seder, recorded in this week’s Parsha. 

The first Passover Seder in history was celebrated not as a remembrance for an event in the past, but rather as a commemoration for an event that was about to take place in the near future. The Jews were commanded to prepare the Passover sacrifices and to celebrate with Matzah and bitter herbs on the night before the actual Exodus. But unlike the Passover offerings that would be offered in subsequent years, the very first Passover offering had to be offered not in one central location, but rather in the home of each family. Furthermore, each family was commanded to remain within the confines of the home for the entire night. They were commanded to place some of the blood of the Pesach offering on the doorposts and on the lintel of their home. As the Torah relates:

Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Draw forth or buy for yourselves sheep for your families and slaughter the Passover sacrifice. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse [it] in the blood that is in the basin, and you shall extend to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning.[2]

Why the blood on the doorposts? Why the need to remain within the home until morning? The conventional answer is, that marking the entrance and remaining in the home protected the Jews from the plague of the death of the first born. The deeper interpretation, however, is that by using the doorposts and the lentil as part of the Mitzvah, the home of every Jew became holy. The commandment not to leave the home is because, as a result of offering the Pesach sacrifice in the home, the home became a miniature temple, and a haven of holiness. 

At the birth of the nation, as the people of Israel were about to emerge from Egypt as a distinct nation, Moses communicated G-d’s message to the people: the goal of Judaism is to transform every corner of life and every place on earth. The objective of Judaism is that spirituality and worship not be reserved for imposing monuments, towers or sanctuaries. Judaism seeks to transform each and every home into a place of spirituality, holiness, peace and tranquility. 

Granted, the intensity of holiness is, indeed, stronger in Judaism's most sacred space, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Thus, in subsequent generations the Pesach offering may only be offered in the temple in Jerusalem. Yet the very first Passover Seder, offered in the critical hours when our nation was being born, served as a symbol to teach us that the essence of Judaism is spreading holiness to every corner of the world, into each and every home.

Thus, intuitively, the Jew feels that to connect to the core of his Jewish identity, more important than experiencing the intensity of holiness in the Shul on Yom Kippur, he must experience holiness as it spreads to the home, where it engulfs in its embrace the totality of the Jew, his home, his possessions, his family and his friends..[3]




[2] Exodus 12:21-22.

[3] Adapted based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Bo, Vol. 26 Sicha 3. 

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