You shall not spiritually block the land [by leaving a body strung up on a tree].
What on earth can this last part of this verse mean? Why is leaving a body on a tree a spiritual block to the earth?
Let’s unpack the language:
The “spiritual block” is sometimes (mis)translated as “unclean.” But its meaning is that something is unable to be elevated, to reach toward heaven. Thus, a person who is blocked cannot engage in acts of holiness until they are spiritually unblocked, either through immersing in earthed waters, the elapsing of time, or some form of spiritual rebirth back to before death existed (the red heifer ritual). Some things, like animals we are forbidden from eating, are inherently incapable of spiritual elevation. But people can be in either state. So too, according to the text, the earth can either be capable of spiritual elevation, or it can be blocked from that elevation.
Why should man be buried? Because the Torah tells us so!
By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground. For from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
So Adam (and all of mankind) are told we are supposed to be returned to the earth. The body is, famously, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” Perhaps this is more than just about mankind.
Perhaps, indeed, this is about the Bigger Picture: our purpose in this world seems to be connected to healing the rift in the world between its polar dualities, to elevating the physical toward the spiritual, bringing light to darkness, combining men and women in holy marriage, connecting man to G-d. And in this spirit, it seems that the earth is part of our mission: we are supposed to be elevating the world in our lives and in our deaths.
The soul has a symbolic physical existence: breath, and blood. The Torah tells us that the spirit of an animal or a person can be found in their blood: Abel’s blood calls out to G-d from the earth. Similarly,
If any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, that person shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.
So an animal that is killed for a higher purpose (food), must have its blood released into the earth, to help take a step toward a world that is focused on connecting with G-d, of seeking positive and holy relationships with every action we do.
G-d made man partially from dust of the earth, and partially from a divinely-blown soul. And this verse seems to be telling us that after our lives, we are supposed to return to our constituent sources: the body goes back to the earth, and the soul goes back to G-d. Both our bodies and souls are on loan, and must be returned after use.
But returning a person to his sources seems to have to happen in order. The soul does not merely return to G-d unless the body/blood are first put back in the earth. There is an order to the operations, this verse seems to be telling us: the hung body must be buried to avoid cursing G-d, and blocking the land from spiritual elevation. A body decomposing in air cheats the earth of its elevation, and interferes with the relationship between each person and his Creator.
By binding the body and the soul together when a person is created, G-d is making an investment in each person. Perhaps that binding implies that the soul cannot be released back to G-d unless and until the body fulfills the “dust to dust” intonement.
[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on creativejudaism.org]