parsha of the week

Treating past sins with dignity


In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, the last two verses of Chapter 21 seem to describe a clear case. The corpse of a person executed by the court is to be hanged from a tree for a short period of time, presumably so people will learn to avoid crimes that incur the death penalty. After the brief hanging, the body is to be taken down and buried.

Many of the commentaries note that the person in this case is guilty of cursing G-d, and the punishment was stoning. Seriously? Blasphemy = stoning?

The Torah depicts two stories for which the punishment was stoning — the blasphemer in Parshat Emor, and the Sabbath-day wood gatherer in Parshat Shlach. In both cases the verdict was delivered by G-d to Moshe, and Moshe in turn gave over the execution responsibility to all of Israel. Whether they found the execution distasteful or embraced the Divine edict, they participated, knowing it was G-d’s will.

A few preliminary thoughts. First, we do not execute people for these crimes. Second, any execution is an extremely serious undertaking. Many societies today do not approve of execution because who are we to play G-d? Killing a murderer, they argue, makes us no better than the murderer. Third, not everything G-d tells us to do must be to our liking. Fourth, without a leader with a connection to the Divine, such as Moshe, this kind of pronouncement is not to be followed.

Targum Yonatan explains why the body must be buried immediately. “It is a disgrace before G-d to hang a person. But this person’s sins caused it! Yet since he is created in the image of G-d, he must be taken down and buried so people don’t mock him, and they shouldn’t have a chance to look upon the corpses of sinners…”

It’s not as much about punishment as it is about the dignity of a person, even after he has been executed.

Rashbam has the opposite perspective. “When people see a person hanging on a tree, they curse the judges … because they’re mad over the ‘small sin’ that has led to an execution, such as the Sabbath wood-gatherer. Since these things tend to upset people, there’s no sense in giving further fuel for the cursing of judges.” Therefore the body is to be taken down right away.

It’s difficult to reconcile G-d’s laws with our distaste for seeing people treated that way, especially when the crime is one whose capital punishment is hard to understand.

And so I want to take the message to a level I hope we can understand. Kohelet (7:20) teaches us that “there is no righteous person in the land who does good and does not sin.” In other words, people are flawed. No one is a tzaddik all the time. It is impossible.

For some lapses, people suffer humiliation, which is compared to death (“one who whitens the face of his friend is as if he has murdered him”). In other words, persons who embarrass themselves on account of their deeds, that humiliation is upon them. It’s their fault.

But the person who aims to humiliate them again is guilty of murder!

How quick are we to remember the negative things we know about a person? How ready are we to share what someone did a long time ago, when there is no evidence that they are still doing it?

Which Jew do you still refer to as a baal teshuvah, even though the person has been living a Torah lifestyle for many years? Which Jew, who chose to join the Jewish people years ago, do you still refer to as a “convert?”

These titles should be points of honor! But the reality is that too many people look at those they label this way as deficient, as not good enough, as people who don’t know everything a Jew knows, as people whose lapses need to be explained because they “didn’t grow up the way we grew up.” This is humiliation. This is hanging the corpse again. This should be as detestable and as distasteful as having our own skeletons taken out of the closet by others to destroy our lives again.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are around the corner. Let us be mindful not to embarrass those who have suffered humiliation due to the past. That past is history; they are living a new life void of those past behaviors.

Teshuvah is possible! If they’ve achieved it, their past deeds should never come up again in conversation, because we’d be guilty of making associations about people we know, using deeds of people who look and sound like them, but no longer exist.

And that is a terrible crime.