There is a verse in the Torah that has captivated me (and my study partners) for some time. It is as follows:
If any party has sinned and is adjudged for death and is put to death, and you string up the body on a tree, you must not let the corpse remain on the tree, but must bury it the same day. For a strung-up body is a curse to God and you shall not spiritually block the land that your G-d is giving you to possess.
There are a great many questions that this verse raises, and I intend to address many of them. But to make it more digestible, each topic will be discussed with more-or-less on a standalone basis.
So here’s the first one: why does it matter that the person in question was adjudged for death? Isn’t it enough to say that every person must be buried? Why does the Torah tell us that the person deserved the death penalty?
The only other time in the Torah that the same phrase for “adjudged for death” is concerning a person who kills another. In this case, it is in the negative:
Otherwise, when the distance is great, the blood-avenger, pursuing the killer in hot anger, may overtake him and strike him down; yet he would not be adjudged for death, since he had not hated him in the past.
In other words, the death sentence is not applied by society for accidental death, for manslaughter. It applies instead for murder, for a death that follows from what might be called, “malice aforethought.”
What is the link? The Torah is telling us that we must even bury the bodies of the very worst people in society: those who act out of hatred to kill another person. And if we bury the very worst people, then absolutely everyone else (who are surely better people) also must deserve to be buried.
Of course, we have the first murderer in the Torah, Cain, who clearly acted with malice aforethought, and indeed committed a sin (the word “sin” is not found with the eating of the fruit, but with Cain giving in to his anger, his animalistic jealousy – and it is found in this case as well). So there seems to be a strong match between Cain’s behavior and the case of this convicted murderer.
The Torah is telling us something quite important. The person who decides to murder someone else is the worst person we can imagine: they endanger all people and all societies, and they also endanger the ability for everyone concerned to grow positive relationships with G-d). Murderers are the worst of the worst.
But if we must treat even their bodies with a modicum of respect (we are not allowed, for example, to leave a body hanging in public to serve as a lesson to others), then it means that the Torah insists that each person has some redeeming value within their body and soul, a value that transcends even their actions.
Indeed, the word for “burial” in the Torah is first used to refer to Avraham and then his wife: You shall go to your ancestors in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age. / “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” Burial in the Torah starts with the founders of the faith: burial is with honor, and with dignity. Even for murderers.
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