Leading Idea: Moral responsibility – people & land -HS

Leading Idea: 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?

Another line of interpretation is found in Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary that interprets ‘land’ as the ‘human ground’. What does ‘human ground mean? One way to read this is to see the human ground as the physical and social space in which humans act out their lives.. It is the inhabited ground, in which our moral sensibility and free-will find expression. For example, the choices we make in the way we conduct ourselves in the shopping mall, the way we treat animals, the way we conduct ourselves socially) Here Hirsch is not just talking about any expression of our free-will, but free-will is given to us to given full expression to our moral purpose as human beings.It is within this constructed space of the ‘activities of persons’ that we (created in God’s image) have the responsibility to express our moral purpose. For Hirsch this enables us to give full expression to our worth as human beings. It is for the sake of this ‘human ground’ that we have a moral responsibility to bury the dead who have lost this capacity (as, in death, the body of human beings becomes merely a body – it is no longer expressive of our free-will. In death, the body is governed instead by the un-free-will necessity of decomposition). This recognition of our responsibility toward burying the dead together with our responsiblity toward preserving the quality of ‘the inhabited space of society’ brings both these dimensions of responsibility (toward people and toward the environment) together. The last paragraph raises interesting ideas about the human response to death – what makes a person’s death challenging and the ways in which it might disturb us.


* 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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