by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
The Torah provides us with rules and guidelines for our interpersonal
relations. Sometimes, we find that just as informative as the Commandments
themselves, are the contexts in which they are given.
For example, this week the Torah tells us that every person must be treated
with respect, because he or she is made in the image of G-d. When we think
of a person in the Torah who represents "the image of G-d" -- who would we
select? What example would we use? We would say "we can all be like
Avraham or Sarah, Moshe, Aharon, or Miriam, great and holy figures who
exemplify the G-dliness that humans can achieve."
The Torah chooses a less lofty example. "If a man commits a sin worthy of
death, and is put to death, and you hang him on a tree; you must not leave
his body overnight on the tree, but rather you must certainly bury him on
that day, for a curse to G-d is the one who is hanged, and you shall not
defile your land that Hashem your G-d gives you for an inheritance." [Dev.
Why is it a "curse to G-d?" Explains Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki: "It is
a denigration of the King, for man is made in His image, and Israel are His
children." And who is this man "in His image" that is hanged after being
put to death? "Our Rabbis said that all those who are killed by stoning are
The punishment of stoning (although administered in a merciful way) was
reserved for those who acted to interrupt the Jewish relationship with G-d.
This was the most severe of the four types of capital punishment. The
crimes which merited stoning were such misdeeds as cursing G-d and
worshipping idols. We're not speaking of a Jewishly-uninformed collegiate
who fell victim to a cult, as can (tragically) happen today, but someone
who knew Judaism and the importance of its Mitzvos, understood our unique
relationship with G-d, and -- after being warned not to do it, and of the
potential punishment -- deliberately worshipped an idol in front of
witnesses. So the one who is hanged is one who quite deliberately attempted
to break the bonds between Israel and G-d -- a person at the absolute
lowest echelon of evil! Nonetheless, the Torah tells us that he was made in
the image of G-d, and even his dead body must be treated with respect.
It's mind-boggling. Why does the Torah choose to emphasize this concept in
relation to a person like this -- one who disgraced himself, "a real
lowlife," rather than someone like Avraham or Sarah?
The answer is straightforward: the Torah knows us too well. It knows human
nature. We're thoughtful, analytical... and all too often, mean-spirited.
What would we have said, if we were given Moshe as the example of man in
G-d's image? "Who was the Torah talking about? Moshe! Moshe, who went up on
Mt. Sinai, and lived in the Higher realms for forty days. Moshe, who was
G-d's messenger. But Frank, my neighbor (roommate)? That no-good thief? I
don't have to respect him!"
The lesson, then, is obvious. However bad he is, our neighbor Frank hardly
stoops to the level of the knowing, deliberate idolator. And even for the
idolatrous rebel, the Torah still emphasizes that he was created in the
image of the Divine... and it's our responsibility to remain cognizant of
that fact, and to behave accordingly.
[This week's Dvar Torah was adapted from a class by Rabbi Asher Z.
Rubenstein, of Jerusalem, Israel. Omissions and errata are mine.]
Rabbi Yaakov Menken