Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Emor 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

The Shame of Perfection

דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו׃

Speak to Aaron and say: None of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect may bring a sacrifice to God. –Leviticus 21:17

What do we do with our blemishes? How do they limit us? Is that limitation imposed on us by an intolerant society, or do we place it upon ourselves? In Parashat Emor, God instructs Moses that no priest with a physical defect may bring sacrifices to the altar in the Tabernacle. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that this exclusion applies not only to humans, but to the animals themselves. Each must be a physically perfect specimen.

Over the past century, American law has learned to first recognize and then protect those with disabilities, starting with soldiers returning from the First World War. So many veterans had been wounded, that the Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act of 1918 was passed: It provided rehabilitation services and job training for those whose injuries prevented them from engaging in their previous endeavors.

For a hundred years, society has learned to view disabilities differently, as it attempted to lower barriers and enhance inclusivity. Something similar happened in Judaism. As far back as the Talmud (Megillah 24b), we see early examples of expanded inclusivity that focused on kavod hatzibbur, or public acceptability. Once society overcame its sense of revulsion around a particular disability, the barrier fell.

Yet there are types of blemishes that are self-imposed in which individuals, perhaps out of a sense of shame, restrict and exclude themselves. A great many people are afraid of public speaking or singing, while many millions of elective cosmetic procedures and surgeries are performed each year. Have we reached a point where the law is less limiting than our own attitudes?

Rabbi Brad Artson once stated, ”I’d like you to consider the fact that the one thing a person cannot ever truly have is a defect.  A defect is a lack of something. How can you possibly possess that which you lack?  What you have when you have a mum (Hebrew for defect) is not a lack–you have the perception of lacking something.  A mum is only possible if you construe yourself as somehow deficient.”