Rabbi Jason Bonder |
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetze, Deuteronomy 21:10-29:8.
Every Rosh Hashanah, we read the biblical story “The Binding of Isaac.” In it, Abraham ties up his son, Isaac, lifts a dagger above him and seems to be ready to end his son’s life.
A story like this reminds us that the Torah isn’t a storybook for children. It contains some challenging and frightening events. And Jewish tradition challenges us to make meaning of it all.
The binding of Isaac is terrifying, but it is hardly the grimmest story in the Torah. In the end, Abraham doesn’t go through with it.
In Ki Tetze, however, the Torah tells of a person whose life has been taken. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 gives the following instructions: “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”
When I began searching the traditional Jewish commentaries, I was delighted to see that I am far from the first to find meaning in such a challenging passage. The 11th-century commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, better known as Rashi, presents two lessons that we can learn from these instructions about the impaled person.
First, Rashi teaches that this commandment reminds us of how we are created in the image of God. In this passage, the Torah challenges us to see the divine spark even within those who commit heinous crimes. Even in those who, according to the Torah, are deserving of capital punishment.
The second lesson comes from Rashi’s close attention to one particular phrase within these verses. He notes that the Hebrew words translated above as “affront to God” are the word “kilelat Elohim.” Rashi points out that the word translated as “affront” is derived from the word “kal” meaning “light” — as in “not heavy.” Rashi makes the point that, oftentimes, an “affront” is when we make light of a person, of a situation, or of the Almighty.
In this Hebrew month of Elul, as we engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh” — “An accounting of the soul” — we are to look back on this past year and on our lives in general. It is always so much easier to look at the good things we’ve accomplished and to simply gloss over the disappointments.
By facing the tough passages of our Torah and finding meaning within them, Rashi shows us that we cannot recoil from the challenging parts of our lives. We must face them with bravery and find meaning in them.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pa.