There are certain Torah prohibitions that require capital punishment. The implementation of capital punishment was very rare. Even if one committed an offense that was liable for capital punishment he could only be killed if two male witnesses warned him immediately before he committed the act. These witnesses were then thoroughly interrogated and then it was up to a court consisting of at least 23 judges to reach a decision based on the majority.
The Torah tells us of four types of capital punishment. If the person was liable to be killed by stoning, the Torah tells us his corpse is to be hung by his hands, on wooden gallows. This was only done briefly, for the Torah tells us to bury the person on the same day.
The reason the Torah gives why a corpse should not be left hanging for an extended period of time is “For a hanging is a curse of G-d.” Rashi explains: since a person is created in the image of G-d, and G-d calls the Jewish nation – His own children, the hanging body is a disgrace to G-d himself. It can be compared to the twin brother of the king, who is a criminal and is hanged for misconduct. People who see the abandoned body hanging think it is the king.
Such is our awesome duty and mission that we were entrusted by G-d.
The Torah instructs us to bury our dead as soon as possible, unless waiting will add to the honor of the deceased.
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin o.b.m. wonders why honoring the deceased plays a role in putting off the mitzvah of an immediate burial. Additionally, we refer to a funeral and eulogies as ‘final respects;’ why is there an emphasis on honoring one posthumously? After all, seeking honor is something that our Sages teach us to abhor during one’s lifetime.
Reb Zalman quotes a teaching of the Medrash. “At the time when one’s soul leaves this world, G-d tells His ministering angel, ‘so and so passed away from the world, go and ask if he was righteous.’”
The question is why does G-d ask His ministering angel to find out about the deceased? After all, we know that everything mankind does, or does not do, is written in G-d’s Books.
Reb Zalman explains; the aforementioned Rashi teaches us that a Jew embodies a profound representation of G-d. Thus, a Jew’s responsibility in this world is to promote the sanctification of G-d’s name through his G-dly and Menchlich conduct, and on the flip side, a Jew can disgrace G-d’s name by not acting in the proper way. People form an impression and are impacted by a person’s conduct for the good and for the bad.
When a person passes away and is meeting his ultimate Heavenly judgement, G-d in His infinite kindness, motions to the ministering angel to go and find out what people are saying about the deceased. What positive impression did he or she make on them during their lifetime, which brought further sanctification to His Name.
So even though man may have struggled with heeding the commands in private, there is a graciousness that he is given in judgement when the angel reports of the impressions that were shared by those who were positively impacted by the deceased.
Thus, the ‘final respects’ is not akin to the Kovod ― respect ― which one receives during his life which one is to turn away from. For the respect that one offers toward the deceased describing how they lived an elevated, righteous and kind life, acts as a great merit, shield and vindication for the deceased in their Heavenly judgement so they can earn higher levels of eternity in the World to Come.
We are familiar with King Solomon’s verse in Song of Songs that is intimately related to the month of Elul, “I alone am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” This means that during the month preceding Rosh Hashana, G-d provides an aura and spirit of closeness to each of us and yearns for a deeper relationship with us in the realm of ‘Beloved.’
One way this can be accomplished is by aspiring to make a positive impact on others; by caring for others, speaking kindly of other, assisting others and going about our day in an elevated, respectful and G-dly driven way!