To this day, there is only one book I’ve ever read which has made me weep: Night by Elie Wiesel. I can still remember sitting on the kitchen counter trying to get through what is by no means a long novel before class the next day, and finding myself crying uncontrollably. I think that was probably 9th grade; Although I had learned plenty about the Holocaust before then, it meant something different in the words of Wiesel’s personal reflection and recollection.
I remember that it was one story in particular that Wiesel tells that really moved me- about the time he came the closest to losing any sense of faith. One day, the Nazi guards had executed a young boy for supposedly organizing a rebellion. Wiesel and his fellow inmates were marched along the gallows so they would see this boy hanging. Because he was young and emaciated, he didn’t weigh enough for the noose to actually break his neck; Instead, he died painfully over the course of several hours. One man, who was behind Wiesel in the line walking past, kept crying out in desperation, ‘Where is God now? Where is God now?!’ Another man went to answer, but only turned, pointed at the boy hanging on the gallows, and said, ‘God is up there, hanging by his neck.’
This story from Night and the emotions that accompany it returned to me this week in looking at our parashah. Ki Tetze deals with a whole variety of civil and criminal laws, most of which have only material and human concerns. Yet there is one which I think actually may be the most theologically rich statement in the entire Torah.
22 And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree;
23 his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you must bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse unto God. Do not defile your land which the LORD your God has given you for an inheritance.
Believe it or not, this verse is the only place in the Torah where we are told to bury our dead. But this short bit has a lot more to say beyond purely practical concerns, for there is a tremendous theological insight buried within it. There’s two commandments here actually: 1) that you must hang someone who has been convicted of a capital case, 2) that you must not leave them hanging overnight, but instead take them down and bury them. So the question is: what is the reason for these two commandments? In particular, our question this morning is this: why are we told that we must not let a body hang overnight? What does it mean to say that the hanged person is a curse upon God?
Our tradition offers no less than 9 answers (as numbered in [MeAm Loez]):
For the hanged man is a [result of a] curse to God. Literally, if you curse God, then you will be punished as such and hanged.
For the hanged man is a curse to God, because of the person hanging there others walk by and they curse the rabbinic court which executed him. We say that a court which executes one person every seventy years is considered bloodthirsty.
For the hanged man is a curse to God, because hanging is the most miserable way to die, so curses against God, anger with God, and blasphemy against God all hover around the corpse - thus why we are told to hurry up and bury him.
For the hanged man is a curse to God. The punishment is the curse which curses God. There’s no way to add to the misery brought about through execution and hanging. The curse is that God has already decreed that they should hang upon a tree.
For the hanged man is a curse to God. Because other people are going to see him and ask around saying, ‘What did he do?’ and they’ll come to curse the man who is hanged and potentially, God-forbid, say God’s name in vain.
For the hanged man is a curse to God. Because the intellectual soul in a human is called ‘Image of God.’ If you hang a dead body overnight without burial, it’s a tremendous embarrassment and shame to the intellectual soul of the person, which is actually the eternal essence.
For the hanged man is a curse to God. There are some who say that it is because others will walk by and ask, ‘Who is that hanging?’ and someone will answer, ‘Oh it’s so-and-so’s son.’
For the hanged man is a curse to God. The actual reason is: Do not defile your land - because when someone is hanged their body rots and putrefies and through this the land and the air are corrupted.
Well everyone, it’s been a set-up - because I’ve saved the best for last. Option 9 makes this verse one of the most profound theological statements in the Torah. Option 9 is:
For the hanged man is a curse to God. That is, the hanged man is a degradation of God, Godself. For humans are made in God’s image and we are God’s children. This can be explained via a parable: Once upon a time there were two twin brothers born into a noble family. One of them advanced through the ranks of society and eventually became the King. The other brother fell in with a group of thieves and spent his life as a criminal. The criminal brother was eventually arrested, sentenced to death, and executed by the court. They hung him, but every person who walked past the gallows gasped and pointed, saying ‘Look, the King has been hung!’
Here in Option 9 the hanged man is of course, the thief and God is, of course, the king. The implication then is that we have to be careful to take someone down from the gallows because each human being is so close to being in the ‘divine image’ that they might literally be confused for one another.
Now, this isn’t to say that God looks like a person. In fact, quite the opposite - the message, as spelled out, is that the human soul is ‘twinned’ to divinity. In fact, there are many who argue that the human soul is chelek elohim mamash, a literal ‘piece’ of God. Thus, this vessel which has contained something divine has to be treated itself as divine, and runs the risk, as odd as it may seem, of being confused with the divine.
This, I think, is one of the most potent theological statements we can make. To say that a human corpse when hung curses God because it imperils the divine image within is profound. Human life is holy, human beings are holy, because they are a vessel for a literal piece of God.
There’s an aspect of the halakhah that might help us with this point: if you use any sort of bag to put your tefillin in, you can’t ever go and use that bag for anything else. The bag itself is irrelevant, but once it has become a container for something holy it too becomes imbued with that selfsame holiness.
So too, humanity is holy for each individual contains a piece of the Divine. If we can actually internalize this and accept it, it would radically change how we think and act in the world. Elie Wiesel’s faith was saved by acknowledging that God too was hanging - that in the murder of that young boy a piece of God died as well. Yet, our way of living out the idea of humanity being in the Divine image doesn’t have to be quite so extreme.
Take it to the micro-level of day-to-day life. Next time the person who is going 10 miles under the speed limit and making you late to get home makes you angry, remember that they are just as much a container of divinity as you are. Next time you see someone you love, consider that perhaps part of that love is about recognizing the divine spark within that person. Next time you think yourself better or more advanced than another because of physical appearance or fine dress, recall that what matters is also what makes us the same - the soul which carries within it a piece of God.
Wiesel stood in the depths of despair and saw God in the face of a young boy hanging from the gallows. We can do the same every moment of every day - in the face of the supermarket cashier, the estranged friend, the distant lover. If we really take to heart the interpretation of our verse, that a hanged man is a curse to God because of the fact that we may very well confuse the container of the divine soul with the divine itself - then we must find a way to see God in the face of any other, The Other, and in the face of each other.