By Rabbi Jason Bonder
Parshat Ki Teitzei
Every Rosh Hashanah, we read the Biblical story called “The Binding of Isaac.” In that story, Abraham ties up his son, Isaac, lifts a dagger above him and is seemingly ready to end Isaac’s life.
A story like this reminds us that the Torah isn’t some storybook for children. Mixed with the uplifting stories of our people are some very challenging and frightening ones. It is fun to learn and discuss the inspiring stories, but Jewish tradition challenges us to make meaning of it all. The good stories and the bad stories. The fun tales and the very uncomfortable ones.
The Binding of Isaac is terrifying, but it is hardly the grimmest of stories in the Hebrew Bible because — spoiler alert — Abraham doesn’t go through with it. An angel stops Abraham before he gets the chance to sacrifice his son.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, however, we are presented with a truly gruesome scene. The Torah tells of a person whose life has already been taken. In Deuteronomy 21:22-23 we see 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.”
There are many, far milder, aspects of this week’s Torah portion. Yet in preparing to write this article, inspired by the upcoming new year and the difficult texts we will read, I wanted to answer the challenge and search for meaning in this passage.
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. For every ounce of ink in the Torah that conveys grim images, our great sages spilled a pound’s worth of ink to share the wisdom that they found within it the problematic texts.
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 “Heshbon 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.
When you review this past year, I hope that you won’t gloss over the parts of your life which might be easier to ignore. Take the time to confront the things we’d rather not face. There is so much meaning and learning for us in the challenges of our lives.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.