Rabbi Abba bar Yudan said: Everything that God disqualified in animals, he endorsed in people. For animals, he disqualified the blind or broken or maimed, but in man he endorsed the broken, downtrodden heart.
(Vayikra Rabba 7)
Rabbi Abba’s is a beautiful idea, but it seems to ignore some inconvenient statements in chapter 21. There, the Torah lists exactly the same blemishes which disqualify an animal as disqualifying people- the kohanim. It’s hard to imagine that Rabbi Abba had an easy time reading those verses, not because they posed a contradiction to his “liberal, Western” values, but because he saw them as contradicting values he gleaned from the Torah itself. But, if you’re searching for it, the verses in our chapter provide us with the resolution to this contradiction.
What exactly is problematic about an animal with a blemish? Is it considered an insult to God, as Rashi suggests in his commentary on priestly disqualifications? This isn’t the explanation that the Torah offers. Rather, the idea the Torah repeats 5 times over the course of 10 verses is that the animal must be ‘liretzonchem’– it must pleasing to you. If someone brings an animal which they see as imperfect, they will view their own sacrifice, their own act of religious worship, as incomplete, as blemished, as dissatisfying.
What is true for the korban is equally true for the kohanim, who are evaluated in terms of the service they can give. A “blemished” kohen isn’t prevented from enjoying holy food, only from acting as the messenger of the people, and this, only because of how the people will look at him.
The problem of a blemish is reflective of people’s perceptions, not of inherent spiritual disqualification. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. This understanding isn’t just fanciful apologetics; it has halachic teeth. The contemporary application of the laws of blemishes is in the context of the priestly blessing. Based on the Gemara, the halacha states that blemishes are a problem only to the extent that they bother people in the community. In a place where people have learned to accept an atypical physical appearance, either from their personal acquaintance with the individual, or the peculiar norms of the community, the kohen may fulfill his priestly duty.
So if the laws of blemishes merely reflect people’s perceptions, what is the ideal vision that we should be striving for? This, Rabbi Abba offered us, and, following him in the Midrash, Rabbi Alexandri:
“A regular person, if someone serves him with broken vessels, he is insulted. But God- the vessels that serve him are broken as it says ‘God is close to the broken hearted” etc.”
This is a daily-ish blog following the 929 chapter of the day. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Learn more about 929 at 929.org.il.