SALT - Thursday, 25 Shevat 5776 - February 4, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim (22:1) introduces the law of “ba be-machteret,” which applies in the case of an intruder who is confronted by the homeowner.  In such a case, the owner is permitted to kill the intruder, as there is good reason to believe that the intruder broke into the home knowing full well that he would be confronted by the owner, and is prepared to kill him.  As such, every situation of intrusion is treated as life-threatening, and the homeowner may thus kill the intruder to protect himself.

            However, the Gemara, in Masekhet Sanhedrin (72b), draws a distinction in this regard between different types of intrusions.  The Torah speaks specifically of a “ba be-machteret” – a burglar who digs an underground tunnel into the intended victim’s home.  The Gemara comments that if the intruder comes in through less laborious means, such as through a door or window, the homeowner does not have the right to kill him unless he first warns the burglar that he would kill him if he does not leave.  The reason, as Rashi explains, is that in such a case, we cannot assume that the burglar intends to kill the homeowner.  It is very possible that he found an open door or window and figured he could attempt a burglary and then flee if he is noticed.  If, however, the burglar went through the trouble of digging an underground passageway into the home, we may assume that he is committed to burglarizing the home at all costs, even if this requires murder.

            Underlying the Gemara’s ruling is a concept that applies to virtue as much as it applies to crime: the sign of firm commitment and resolve is hard work.  If a person is not truly committed to a certain cause, then he might participate when he finds an “open window,” if he sees a convenient, risk-free opportunity.  But if one is passionately devoted to a goal, he is prepared to “dig” and do what is necessary to achieve it.  Even when the “windows” are “locked,” when there is no easy path to the goal, he invests the effort needed to get there.

            We will never achieve excellence in our religious observance if we only enter through the open windows, if we take on only that which is easy and convenient.  Certainly, plenty of “windows” will open before us over the course of our lives; we will occasionally encounter mitzva opportunities that present themselves and are available without too much exertion on our part, and we are obliged to seize every such opportunity.  But just as importantly, we need to be prepared to “dig.”  The goal of religious achievement, like the situation of a “ba be-machteret,” demands unconditional commitment and dedicated, consistent effort.  Rather than waiting to notice an “open window,” we are to pursue spiritual excellence even if this necessitates “digging” and investing a great deal of time and energy.