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Mandate for Dignity of Others (Ki Tatzai 9/2/17)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Mandate for Dignity of Others

One of the teachings in Parshat Ki Taitzai instructs us that if a man is executed by hanging by the court, his body cannot be left hanging on the gallows overnight.

ספר דברים פרק כא
כב) וְכִי יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת וְהוּמָת וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ עַל עֵץ
כג) לֹא תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל הָעֵץ כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּי קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים תָּלוּי וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת אַדְמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה

“If a man be executed by the Court, hang his body on the gallows, but do not leave his body overnight on the gallows. You shall bury him that day, for it is a disgrace to G-d and you should not defile the land that G-d is giving you.”

This verse is the source for our tradition that burial take place as close to the time of death as possible.

But why, in fact, does the Torah tell us that this hanging body cannot be left outside overnight? For a disgraced body, is an insult to G-d, for we’re all created in the Divine Image.

The Talmud explains: “This is comparable to two brothers – twins – who lived in the same city. One was appointed king and the other went off and became a bandit. The Bandit was caught and hung. But everyone who saw him hanging said: the king is hanged! The king therefore commanded that his image be taken down.”

This is a lesson to us that every person is created in G-d’s image and therefore deserving of dignity.

I believe this issue, human dignity, is the key issue we are wrestling with in the summer of 2017:

With Hurricane Harvey this past week, we came to understand that those millions of people affected by the hurricane, their lives matter. Even one person is worthy of a helicopter rescue, and the right to shelter and access to fresh water.

From Charlottesville, we’ve come to painfully relearn that Jewish lives matter.

Across Europe, terrorists have been plotting random attacks, but those innocent lives matter.

In Jordan, millions of Syrians living in refugee camps have had their lives placed on hold, but their lives matter.

Back in our country, Black lives matter, GLBTQ lives matter, and with the deportations of the Trump administration and the rescinding of DACA, we need to feel that immigrant lives matter as well.

It worthy to repeat what Rabbi Lina Zerbarini shared at the “Break the Hate Rally” at the Mid-Island Y last Sunday.

The Midrash recounts a discussion between Ben Azai and Rabbi Akiva over what’s the main teaching of the Torah:

מדרש רבה בראשית פרשה כד פסקה ז
בן עזאי אומר זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול בתורה ר”ע אומר (ויקרא יט) ואהבת לרעך כמוך זה כלל גדול בתורה שלא תאמר הואיל ונתבזיתי יתבזה חבירי עמי הואיל ונתקללתי יתקלל חבירי עמי א”ר תנחומא אם עשית כן דע למי אתה מבזה בדמות אלהים עשה אותו
“Ben Azzai says, “These are the generations of Adam”-this is the main teaching of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”-this is the main teaching of the Torah.”

Now, Rabbi Akiva’s opinion makes sense. Everyone understands the “Golden Rule, treat others like you’d want to be treated,” it’s the main tenet of many great religions.

But’s what’s the depth behind Ben Azai, what’s so important about the verse, “These are the generations of Adam?”

Rabbi Zerbarini explained that Ben Azai’s teaching is actually very profound.

  1. We all descend from one common ancestor: Adam. Therefore no one should feel superior or inferior to someone else.
  2. That common ancestor was created in the image of G-d. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, humans are unique in their Godlike capabilities and endowments. Every person is precious, because they are reflection of the Divine.

There’s also a weakness to Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, for based upon the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself”- we could be limited by the definition of “neighbor.” This could end up being a very political or ethnic interpretation. Ben Azai on the other hand is teaching us that all people are part of our family, and we are all created in the Divine image.

At this point in time, we all need to be firm in our resistance to racists and bigots. Our best course of action though, is to elevate our care and concern for the dignity of those facing discrimination and suffering, for we are all descended from one common family and created in the Divine image.

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