Fight or Flight? 'Stand Your Ground' in the Torah and Today©

Fight or Flight?  'Stand Your Ground' in the Torah and Today©
Parashat Mishpatim
Rabbi David Baum

A little over a week ago, many of us heard a story about a 43 year old husband and father, Chad Oulson, who was shot once in the chest and died in a Florida movie theater.  His crime?  Texting during a movie.  He was shot by a retired Tampa Police officer, Curtis J. Reeves, 71 years old, after Curtis confronted Mr. Oulson who was texting his child’s pre-school.  Apparently, Mr. Reeves was hit in the face by an unknown object and felt threatened, so he took his gun out and shot him.  The unknown object:  a bag of popcorn.   It has just come out that Mr. Reeves, who will be put on trial for 2nd degree murder, will use the Stand Your Ground Law as his defense.  This law became popular during the Treyvon Martin case, although George Zimmerman’s attorneys never invoked the law, the jurors took it into consideration.  
For those who don't know, Stand Your Ground is a self defense law that gives individuals the right to use deadly force to defense themselves without any requirement to evade or retreat from a dangerous situation.  46 states have a law called the Castle doctrine which is a self defense law that only applies to your home, but this law opens up the definition of 'home' to include anywhere you go.  There are more nuances to the law, but this is the basic law.  
In our parashah this week, we are confronted with this very issue – when is it permissible to defend ourselves against a threat?  
Exodus 22:1 - 3
א אִם-בַּמַּחְתֶּרֶת יִמָּצֵא הַגַּנָּב, וְהֻכָּה וָמֵת--אֵין לוֹ, דָּמִים.  ב אִם-זָרְחָה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ עָלָיו, דָּמִים לוֹ:  שַׁלֵּם יְשַׁלֵּם--אִם-אֵין לוֹ, וְנִמְכַּר בִּגְנֵבָתוֹ.  ג אִם-הִמָּצֵא תִמָּצֵא בְיָדוֹ הַגְּנֵבָה, מִשּׁוֹר עַד-חֲמוֹר עַד-שֶׂה--חַיִּים:  שְׁנַיִם, יְשַׁלֵּם.  {ס}
1.If the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case. 2 If the sun has risen on him, there is bloodguilt in that case.—He must make restitution; if he lacks the means, he shall be sold for his theft. 3But if what he stole—whether ox or ass or sheep—is found alive in his possession, he shall pay double.
Let's break this down, what could this pasuk mean?  
Where does this seem to take place?  The home.
Here are some commentaries – Rashi says, he has no blood means, the person who is tunneling into your home is considered dead to begin with, and then he quotes the Talmud which states, “If someone is coming to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a).  In the next comment, Rashi interprets 'if the sun has risen on him' as a metaphor - “if it is clear to you that his intentions toward you are peaceful, as the sun brings peace to the world' – in other words, if he has no intention of killing you – he sights an example of a father breaking into his son's house – the son cannot kill him because he knows his father would never kill him.
Other commentators, including Rashi's grandson Rashbam, differ with Rashi on the meaning of these verses.  They say that the first pasuk, tunneling, means the crime happened at night, and one is allowed to kill an intruder at night, but the second pasuk is to be taken literally, “if the sun has risen” meaning, during the day.  If someone breaks in your home during the day, you cannot kill them, and if you do, you must make restitution.  
What I find interesting here is that no matter which commentator you go by, there are limits as to what you can do to defend your home.  If this is true in your own home, how much the more so is this true if you are walking around the street, or in a movie theater?  It is clear – in most situations, the clear favorite option is to escape, flight rather than fight.  
It sounds almost Un-American doesn't it?  It seems like it's lacking freedom and liberty, but let's go back to our case.  A week and a half ago, there was a retired police officer who was probably looking forward to his golden years.  A week and a half ago, there was a young father and husband who was looking forward to raising a beautiful family.  Today – a 72 year old is in jail, and will probably spend his golden years behind bars, and worse, a young father is now dead, a wife widowed, a child orphaned.  Is this the type of society that we want to live in?  After I saw this news report, Alissa turned to me and said, “now we have to be scared to go to text in a movie theater?!?”  
Does this sound like freedom and liberty to you?  
Fleeing doesn't sound very brave, but it's what the Torah wants us to do in many situations, and for good reason.  
The Ethics of our Fathers contains a very famous line by Ben Zoma:
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ
Who is hero?  One who can control his impulses.  One who can take a step back, and back down rather than pull out a gun to stand his ground.  
These laws are here to make sure that the world is not at the mercy of our impulses.  
This parashah doesn't have the bells and whistles of last week's parashah (Yitro - which told the story of God revealing the Torah to Bnai Israel)– there are no colors you can hear, or sounds you can see here.  This week is about creating a system of justice so all of us can live in true freedom.  
At the end of our parashah which the rabbis called, Sefer HaBrit – the book of the covenant, we read about a scene where Moses comes before the entire people:
ג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה, וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל-דִּבְקי יְקוָק, וְאֵת, כָּל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וַיַּעַן כָּל-הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְקוָק, נַעֲשֶׂה.
24:3Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!”
The Mekhilta of Bar Yochai says this means that all the rules of a just society have the same divine origin as the 10 Commandments; laws of self defense, laws of protecting life, of protecting the powerless, laws against poverty, laws of holidays, all types of laws.  
They answered with one voice – at that moment they created a just society.  
Let us all speak with one voice against injustice.  Let us all speak against those who would say that they are above the law.  Let us all speak for a more just law – so that we can live in true freedom.  


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