Leading Idea: Moral responsibility – people & land -PS

Moral Responsibility:  toward people, and toward the land.  

 Burying the Dead

In this parshah the explanation for why we should not leave a dead body hung on a pole or tree overnight might take us by surprise. Two reasons are given. The one we might expect is that the human body itself places a moral demand on us, requiring we bury it in a timely manner so that it is not defiled (leaving a human body hanging is an affront to God, as we are ‘formed in God’s image’).  Yet we are also given a second reason, one less expected. We are told “you shall not defile (make unclean, טמאה) your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance.”  that is, it is for the sake of the land that we are required to remove the body and bury it.* This suggests that we have a moral responsibility toward maintaining the environment (keeping it clean), and not just a moral duty toward the human body.

Do we have a moral responsibility to look after the environment out of a responsibility toward the other people with whom we share the environment (so they can play safely and in an aesthetic space), or do we do it out of a moral responsibility toward the environment itself (not to defile the land?). In our own contexts, what does ‘defiling the land’ mean? Are there ways our own actions or inaction leads to the land being made ‘unclean’? (open cut mining?  Littering? Destroying rainforestד? polluting rivers?). Are there physical actions in the environment we feel morally responsible to take for the sake of other human beings? Are there physical actions in the environment we feel morally responsible to take for the sake of the environment itself?

* If the body is left hanging animals may come and pull it apart and spread parts of the body on the land – since in Tanach, those things that come in touch with a dead body become unclean, unfit for use, the physical earth would now become unclean, unable to fulfill its purpose. The point here is that is our responsibility to attend to the body so that this does not happen.


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