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In Jewish law, some of the death penalties require that the person who is killed be hanged in public view after his death in order to publicize his wrongdoing. The Romans, as well as other nations throughout history, employed a similar tactic.
In Jewish law, some of the death penalties require that the person who is killed be hanged in public view after his death in order to publicize his wrongdoing. The Romans, as well as other nations throughout history, employed a similar tactic. But, as similar as it may seem, the Torah's requirement of hanging is unlike that of any other nation. The Torah commands in this week's portion, "His body shall not remain for the night on the gallows, rather you shall surely bury him on that day, because Hashem's disgrace is hanging there" (Deuteronomy 21:23). Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, explains that this requirement is more than a humanitarian gesture. The dangling corpse is a disgrace to Hashem because Man is created in the image of Hashem. It is as though the honor of Hashem is cheapened every time a person sees the dangling corpse.
However, this raises an obvious question. Often, children physically resemble their biological parents in facial features, height, weight, and personality. In what way do people resemble their Father in heaven, who is completely separate from our physical existence?
The Sforno, a 16th century classic commentator on the Torah, explains that Man resembles Hashem in a spiritual way. One of the hallmarks of physicality is that it has a finite existence. By contrast, Hashem's infinite existence is above time. Man's similarity to Hashem is that although Man's physical body remains for only a limited number of years, his soul lives forever. The mark of the soul is Man's capacity to learn abstract ideas and incorporate truth into his life. These qualities enable him to achieve a relationship with Hashem, distinguishing him from the animals. The soul defines a person and continues to live after the death of the body. The hanging of a corpse is a disgrace to the deceased. True, the only thing hanging is the physical corpse, but the soul becomes disgraced because people automatically link the two. Therefore, Hashem's disgrace is indeed hanging there.
When the body is engaged in purely physical pursuits, the body defines the soul. When the body is used as a vehicle for spiritual pursuits, the soul defines the body. The mitzvah not to leave a corpse hanging is a reminder that in the Torah's view, the soul is meant to define the body. What is your definition?
Yosef Rodbell, a native Atlantan, is a member of the Kollel at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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