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Parashat Ki Tetzei

August 23, 2006

By Rabbi David Greenstein

According to traditional enumerations of the mitzvoth (commandments) in the Torah, our portion includes 74 ordinances, more than any other portion. These mitzvoth encompass the full range of the Torah’s concerns for how we are to meet the challenge of our paradoxical beings, made up, as we are, of both physical and spiritual natures. A particularly telling instance of this concern is found in the Torah’s warning regarding the proper treatment of executed criminals:

Should there be a person guilty of a capital crime, and he is executed, you shall hang him from a tree. But do not let his corpse hang on the tree over night. Rather, make sure to bury him that very day, for it is a Divine curse to be hung. Thus you will not defile your land that God Your Almighty gives you as an estate. (Deut. 21:22-23)

These verses embrace a series of paradoxes regarding our attitudes to sin and defilement, to personhood and community, and to the spiritual and physical realms we inhabit.

We learn that that there are cases in which a person may be guilty of a crime that brings the death penalty. The Torah, seemingly unswayed by mercy, feels no compunction about demanding the most severe punishment for certain offenses. Moreover, the punishment is not completed with the execution. The criminal’s dead corpse must be hung up on a
tree. This image is a forceful expression of revulsion
against the criminal’s person. It is a public humiliation
of his lifeless body, but it is a humiliation that he can
only know of in prospect, not at the time when it happens. What is the connection between this lifeless cadaver that is disgraced by hanging and the living person who was formerly embodied by it? Is it the body itself that sinned, so that it must be punished even after the criminal has died? What
purpose does this public humiliation serve? Who is
supposed to witness it and be affected by it?

These questions become more perplexing when we notice that the Torah then reverses this process of cruelty and degradation by demanding that even such a sinner, after being put to death and hung, must be treated with dignity. His corpse must be buried on that very day.

It is as if the Torah accepts the bloody emotions of frenzied hatred that accompany an execution, but then immediately puts a brake on those feelings. We who have been violated by the transgression of the criminal are commanded to give vent to our resulting feelings of aggression and
destruction. But then we are commanded to immediately overcome them and to substitute another set of feelings. Our rage is transferred from contemplation of the evil deed perpetrated by the criminal to the natural correlative of hatred for the person and, from there, to the person’s physical body. Thus we capture, try and execute the criminal
and hang his body on a tree. But in moving toward the contemplation of his exposed and defenseless body we are to be moved by such a view toward a speedy embrace of the body, so that, filled with both compassion and dread, we bring it to a proper burial.

It is as if it is only by bluntly confronting the most basic physical aspect of our existence that we are able to retrace our steps and return from the path we have pursued – a path impelled by a complex process encompassing the most sophisticated interactions of society and law, passion and reason – a path that has led us to death and destruction. It is when we stand at the existential brink, gazing at the
horrible sight of a lifeless human body hanging on a tree that we must regain our hold on the values of human dignity and fellow-feeling. We bury our dead.

If we do not do this, says the verse, we will
be guilty of defiling the land. Here we encounter the
culminating paradox. If the body that we have hung on the tree were somehow impure or evil, one would assume that its interment in the ground would be a sure way to defile the earth. But the very opposite is the case. For the Torah teaches that the way to prevent desecration of the land is by burying this violated corpse of a sinner in the very land itself! In this verse the Torah brings us full circle. It tells us that it is not some physical item or stuff that we may put into the earth that has the power to defile or
sanctify the land. Rather, it is how we live on this earth that has the power to sanctify or desecrate the land. We have made our way away from a focus on the physical back to a dedication to the moral and spiritual aspects of our lives.

And we start the balancing act again.