22 And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree; 23 his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a reproach unto G-d; that you defile not your land which the L-rd your G-d gives you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
The first few moments of an action movie are very canned. You meet the antagonist. He commits an act that is so heinous that you have the patience to sit through the movie just to satisfy your desire to see him get killed. Major sporting events, boxing matches, and, in recent years, presidential elections have much the same flavor.
These verses describe two mitzvot, one, the obligation to hang a person indicted and executed by stoning for the sin of idolatry, and two, the obligation to take down the body of the executed before sunset of the day his or her body is hanged. The purpose of the hanging is to publicize the execution of the idolater, and to instill fear in the hearts of the people (Sefer HaChinuch). There are some key distinctions to be made between the Torah’s public exhibition of the death penalty and similar rituals that are found in other legal systems. First, the hanging occurs post-mortem, and is not the cause of the accused’s death. Second, the hanging is a deterrent, not a revenge ritual; this is not a spectator sport nor an opportunity for the public to watch the bad guy get his. One who witnesses the macabre sight of the hanging body has been given a moment of pause to contemplate the gravity of the sin and the importance of guarding oneself from transgression.
Why is it important to lower the body of the hanged person before sunset? Why not keep it up there like the unfortunate Mexican patriarch from El Norte? Fine, we don’t want people missing the point and enjoying the spectacle as a perverse form of entertainment, but at least let the righteous rejoice at the sight of justice carried out!
Rashi (Deuteronomy 21:23) explains the phrase, “for he that is hanged is a reproach to G-d” in the following manner: imagine that there are two identical twin brothers; one becomes a royal minister, while the other is arrested and hanged for robbery and assault. The people who behold the sight of the hanged criminal will say, “the royal minister has been hanged”. Man was created in the image of G-d; man is the ambassador of godliness in the world. Hanging the bandit ultimately results in the denigration of the royal minister he resembles. Similarly, when a criminal is hanged, this Divine image is thereby lowered in the eyes of others; it is a humiliation to the King Himself.
Rabbi Akiva is known for his statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself–this is an overarching principle of the Torah” (Bereshit Rabba 24:7). The mitzvah to love one’s neighbor is elucidated in the Talmud in a story that takes place between Hillel and the proselyte who wishes to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel’s response is, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend.” (TB Shabbat 31a). This can be understood on two levels: first, do no harm to your friend, and, on a deeper level, do no “harm” to your Friend, G-d Himself. Just as we are obligated not to violate the needs and sensitivities of a fellow man, we are obligated all the more so by the mitzvot of the Torah not to violate G-d’s Will. Don’t do what is hateful to Him.
The commentators ask why Hillel phrased his answer in the negative, when the mitzvah to love one’s fellow is itself phrased in the positive. The Maharsha notes that Rabbi Akiva had another overarching principle, namely, that if two people are on a desert island with only one flask of water between them, each one is supposed to give precedence to his or her own life. This is called chayecha kodem, “your life comes first”. If your life comes first, what does it mean to love your neighbor “as yourself”, which implies equality? Conceptually, it is impossible. Hillel’s answer reveals to us that “Love thy neighbor” is actually a negative commandment to not harm another person. The “as yourself” part means that in order to fulfill the mitzvah, I have to start by examining myself as a reference point; what do I not like? What is hateful to me? From there, I discover how to respect the needs of others.
In the above midrash, Rabbi Akiva’s opinion regarding the mitzvah of “love your neighbor” is cited first, followed by a statement by Ben Azzai, who says, “there is an even greater rule than ‘love your neighbor’, and that is, ‘this is the book of the generations of man’ (Genesis 5:1). The verse quoted by Ben Azzai is far wider in scope; it comes from the very beginning of the Torah and is a sort of summary statement regarding man himself. Thinking about the creation of man reminds us that man–all of mankind–was created in the image of G-d (Also see JT Nedarim 9:4).
What Ben Azzai is saying is that remembering the fact of man’s creation in the Divine image goes far beyond using what is displeasing to oneself as a yardstick to measure one’s actions vis-a-vis other people. A person may decide to refrain from doing the wrong thing to other people based on his or her self-analysis. But what if the self-analyzer is a masochist, a narcissist, or a sociopath?
Better to “do no harm” to others, because they were created in the image of G-d, and because hurting others is not just subjectively distasteful; it conceals the godliness that exists in every human being. “Let the person remember Who he is really denigrating.” (loc cit.; Also see Torah Temimah on Devarim 21:22-3)
If the Torah is so careful to preserve the Divine image present in the dead body of a hanged criminal, someone who can no longer improve him or herself or become any more conscientious, how much more do we have to raise our awareness of the Divine image that exists within all people, the godliness which is the true source of human dignity?
Let us be blessed to experience the Divine image in humanity. Let our experience of that Divine image be a catalyst, leading us to the fulfillment of the commandment of “love your neighbor as yourself”. Then we will find ourselves in a world of godliness.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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