The first part of this parasha corresponds to לא תנאף; it’s the laws of marriage and family life. But there’s an odd law in the middle of it all:
What is this law, of the requirement and limitations on hanging a body after the death penalty, doing here?
Rashi says it’s the logical consequence of the violation of family law. The breakdown of the family leads to the kind of lawlessness that makes hanging inevitable:
כי קללת אלקים תלוי is a very ambiguous phrase. First, which is the cause and which is the effect? Does being a קללת אלקים lead to תלוי, or does being a תלוי lead to a קללת אלקים? Second, קללת is in the genitive case, “cursed of G-d”, but that could mean that G-d is cursed (or insulted), or that G-d is doing the cursing. Each of the four possibilities is attested to somewhere:
• Hanging causes the person to be cursed by G-d:
• Being cursed by G-d leads to hanging:
But both of these are not mainstream Jewish opinions.
The halacha understands this to be rule of who is to be hung:
• He who cursed G-d is hung:
But the approach we will take is from Rashi, based on the Tosephta:
• He who is hung causes G-d to be cursed:
Why hang a body in the first place? It is meant as a deterrent (I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, but I’m told that’s a frequent plot point).
The use of hanging as a warning pour encourager les autres is very powerful but very dangerous. Since the very act of hanging is a חלול ה׳, the halacha works very hard to minimize it:
And we see this law implemented by Joshua:
But Rashi’s metaphor of the twins is hard to understand once we look at it closely. The metaphor is of two twins, one a king and the other a brigand. The brigand is hanged, and people say the king was hanged. This is a זלזולו של מלך. But then the metaphee (not a real word, but it should be) for the king is ה׳ Himself. Are people really going to think that G-d is hanging there?
Rashi’s source in fact words the metaphor a little differently:
Hanging a human body is like hanging G-d in effigy. It is a זלזולו של מלך, a קללת אלקים, to debase the צלם אלקים, implying G-d made a mistake in giving us the free will to make mistakes:
And it is precisely our free will that is called the צלם אלקים:
So displaying the criminal may be a deterrent and thus may be felt to be useful, but it is inherently a חלול ה׳. We are in effect saying, “Look, G-d, you messed up. Here’s one of Your creatures, using the powers that You created, Your very image, hanging here.”
With that, we need to understand a horrific story at the end of ספר שמואל:
Leaving aside the morality of giving over Saul’s children to be killed (we will deal with all this in detail in the תנ״ך class in a few months), what happened to לא תלין נבלתו על העץ?
Ramban lets David off on a technicality:
But that does not affect the underlying moral problem of חלול ה׳. The Gemara explains that we need to have a broader vision of what קידוש ה׳ really means:
This is why we need to try to understand טעמי המצוות: it is an important part of halachic decision-making. If the reason for the מצוה is קידוש ה׳, then we look for all possible technicalities to ensure that enforcing the מצוה does not create a חלול ה׳. One can only be a חסיד if it creates a קידוש ה׳.