Parashat Ki Tetze

Let's Get Physical!

The commandment to remove a corpse from the stake on which it is impaled teaches us the importance of respecting the holiness of the body.

Print this page Print this page

Why is an impaled body an offense against God? Wouldn't the humiliated corpse serve a valuable preventative function, since all who saw it would resolve not to commit a similar offense? If so, it should be a good thing to leave the body hanging. Besides, the person isn't the same as the body anyway! The body is relatively unimportant, like a used set of clothing that no longer fits. So who cares about how the body is treated!

Apparently, the Torah doesn't accept that trivialization of the body. Rashi adds to the Torah that, "It is a slight to the King [God] because humanity is made in the likeness of God's image and Israel are God's children." This may be likened to two twin brothers who resembled each other; one became a king while the other was seized as a criminal and hanged. Whoever saw him exclaimed, 'The king is hanged.'" This shocking comment implies that our resemblance to God is more than just spiritual, that even our bodies reflect the Divine Image, and therefore deserve reverence and respect.

In Midrash Va-Yikra Rabbah, the great sage, Hillel, compares keeping our bodies clean to maintaining a statue of a king. He comments that, "Bathing the body is an obligation, since we are created in the image of the Ruler of the world."

For that same reason, Jewish tradition prohibits cremation as undignified to the body of the deceased, and Talmudic tradition affirms a physical resurrection of the dead. One need not share every Talmudic belief about the afterlife to recognize great wisdom in preserving a sense of awe and gratitude for the human body.

In an age awash in self-destructive drugs, too busy to exercise or to eat carefully, respect for our bodies is dangerously low on our agenda. Teenagers and women smoke in growing numbers, and alcohol use, too, is on the rise. Biblical and Rabbinic tradition maintain that our bodies reflect God's image and therefore command respectful maintenance. In addition, our bodies are not our property, but God's. We use them, as the tenants and stewards of God's possessions. But ultimately, our bodies must be returned, well-tended, to their original Owner.

Is there a connection between the trivialization of the body in American spirituality and the callous disregard for bodies in American life? Let's get physical!

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.