Rabbi Ain Sermon – Parashat Ki Tetze 2019

Caring for our Bodies

I was driving home this past Sunday from officiating at the unveiling of our beloved past president, mark weiner, when I heard on the radio, that the remains of a soldier killed in pearl harbor, had been identified. Family members say they expect 1,000 people or more to attend today’s funeral for Fireman 3rd Class Harold Kendall “Bud” Costill, 18, a battleship USS West Virginia sailor killed in the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Costill’s body was only recently returned from Hawaii to his Clayton, New Jersey, home for burial after it was finally identified. His 93-year-old brother Gene, the only surviving sibling of the five Costill children, will oversee his brother’s return and invited the entire town to his services.

This really struck me, for numerous reasons. First, I was on my way home from a cemetery where Mark’s family and friends had been able to give him a proper burial 10 months ago, and pay homage to his memory by unveiling a beautiful headstone that captured the essence of who he was.

But it also struck me, because though this wasn’t a Jewish family, it spoke to the depths of what it means to care for our dead, a deeply Jewish value. That we don’t just leave remains, but we do the hard work of trying to find them, if possible, and then, giving them a proper burial-something that has been on my mind also during this week where we mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 

Lastly, it struck me because of what i imagine will be the increased number of those whose lives were lost in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. A realization that not all bodies might be found. 

While this feels like a grim topic to speak of, if you were reading closely this morning, Annabelle, I promise, there were some I really avoided…

But here is the thing. We need to talk about our bodies and how we care for them because I believe that each of us is inherently imbued with a sense of holiness, both in terms of body and spirit. 

This morning I would like us to contemplate the nature of our own bodies-how we treat them and how they relate to our relationship with God. Because if we make this equation then I believe we will be reminded about the importance of treating bodies with holiness, both when we are alive, and when we are gone. 

This week’s parasha, parashat Ki Tetze, which contains within it 74 of the 613 commandments, teaches that “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake [after his having already been executed], you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but you 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.”

Now there are many different directions we can go to talk about this concept. Certainly we could have a discussion about capital punishment, but today I want to focus on the second part-that if you do in fact put a person to death by hanging them you must bury them that same day.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson asks the question “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!

Rabbi Artson says, “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 is really incredible. That we make a decision to put a person to death but we still must treat that body with respect. Let us continue to examine how this commandment can apply to our lives. 

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. 

First, we learn that we must take responsibility for a corpse whether we have a personal or loving relationship to it or not. In last week’s parasha we are reminded that if a person is found dead in between two cities than both cities need to find a way to take care of it. They are not able to say “This person was not from our town.” No one is absolved from the responsibility of caring for the dead. 

We see, that caring for our physical body is in itself an act of holiness. What we eat, how we act, what we do each day are all decisions that we need to make with care.

Let’s first begin with what and how we eat. I was speaking w/members of our shul a few days ago about their recent visit upstate to the NY State Fair and while we were marveling at some of the booths that exist, we were lamenting the amount of unhealthy food. Now trust me, I like a donut just like the next person, but we know that and overabundance of food can be highly problematic. First, the amount of waste of often huge. But more than that, how you eat that can impact your body. Do any of you remember seeing the documentary SuperSize Me. This was about a person’s quest to see what would happen if he ate only McDonalds for 30 days. The results were devastating. The amount of bad food that this person ate was horrendous. This is not a comment about McDonalds. But it is a comment about what happens when we aren’t conscious about what we are eating. 

Coincidentally in this week’s parasha we are told that “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them;

19. Then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him, and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place;

20. And they shall say to the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

21. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shall you put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

Clearly I am not advocating stoning our children but listen carefully to the accusations-he is a glutton and a drunkard. Why are these attributes part of being a rebellious person. Because, I would argue, he is not treating his body with a sense of holiness and respect. But what this also raises is the parental obligation to make sure that there are family dinners with healthy choices so that a child knows what to eat. Again, there is nothing wrong with snacks and fun foods. But it is all about how we make the choices to eat them. 

There are other areas in our lives that remind us how we need to take care of our bodies. There are so many ways to do this-healthy eating, good exercise, and occasionally sleeping. The question that naturally rises is why are we so saddened/disappointed when we hear about our sports heroes either use performance enhancing drugs or OD completely. I think back to earlier this summer when a MLB starting pitcher, Tyler Skaggs was found dead. Last week it became clear that he had the opioids fentanyl and oxycodone along with alcohol in his system. Our sadness comes not just from people cheating the system but unfortunately getting addicted to substances that literally kill them. How do we help ourselves, and others remember, that we should appreciate and elevate their bodies to a level of holiness, rather than destroy it.

This applies to Hillel the Elder who once, when he concluded his studies with his disciples, walked along with them. 

He started to enter a bathhouse. His disciples asked him: ‘ Master, where are you going? ‘ He answered them: ‘ To perform a religious duty.’ ‘ What,’ they asked, ‘ is this religious duty?’ He said to them: ‘To wash in the bath-house.’ They said: ‘ Is this areligious duty? ‘ ‘ Yes, ‘ he replied; ‘ if the statues of kings, which are erected in theatres and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them,-how much more I, who have been created in the Image and Likeness must wash myself; We see that Hillel is showing that that Bathing the body is an obligation, since we are created in the image of the Ruler of the world.

In the coming week’s we will begin to really shift our minds to the high holidays, where we will think about from where we came and from where we are headed. We will remind ourselves that we, like everyone else, was created, and at some point, we will go from dust to dust. Though we all hope it is Ad Meah Vesrim, until 120, the events of this week and the comments in our parasha, impore us to think deeply about our bodies. We must think about our humanity.  We are reminded that we are given a gift of life that we must nurture and take care of. And we must encourage others to do the same, so that we can all appreciate what we have, here on this earth.

Shabbat shalom