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Emor: A Lesson For Life

G-D spoke to Moses to tell Aaron saying: Any man …in whom there will be a mum (blemish) shall not approach (to the altar) to offer the bread of his G-D. (Lev.21:17)

This verse introduces one of the most conceptually problematic passages in all Scripture. Used as we are to the Torah’s emphasis on p’nimiut, on inner strength and wholeness rather than bodily perfection, what are we to make of the prohibition in this week’s Sidra that a kohen with a bodily defect or disfiguration – for example a broken hand or foot (21:19) or lameness or blindness (21:18) – may not serve with his fellow-kohanim in the Sanctuary?

The thirteenth-century author of Sefer HaChinukh, the classic rabbinic work on the 613 mitsvot, avoids all apologetics and puts it down to a readily perceivable if unpalatable fact of life. “Man sees with his eyes, while [it is only] G-D [who] sees into the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). The kohen, he says, is the ambassador of the people before G-D and, while G-D will of course be concerned with the ‘inner person’, the people who elected him will be inspired mainly by outer manifestations such as appearance which must be “pleasing …in order that the minds of the populace may be drawn to him.” While his inner soul must be holy and at one with G-D, his outer appearance must be regal and inspiring to man. Also, says the Chinukh, the disfigurement will distract the onlookers and cause their minds to wander from the desired goal, namely the instilling of feelings of awe and desire to be closer to G-D.  Moreover, he says, the Temple must be physically beautiful, its offerings unblemished and their offerers likewise. Zeh keili va-aneveihu. “This is My G-D and I will beautify Him.” (Exodus 15:2)

This uncompromisingly realistic approach to the human psyche may nevertheless still leave us with an uncomfortable feeling. After all, isn’t part of coming closer to G-D the realization that we should, as Rabbi Meir teaches, “not look at the vessel but at what is inside it.” (Avot 5:27) The thundering words of G-D to Samuel in the verse cited above as he is about – wrongly – to anoint the strapping Eliav as king instead of David still ring in our ears. “Look not upon his appearance or on the height of his stature, for it is not as man sees!” Should we not strive to see things as G-D sees them? Is there perhaps a different, perhaps more intellectually satisfying way of looking at this mum passage in our Sidra, one to which we can better relate?

When we turn to the commentary of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of so-called ‘modern orthodoxy’ (a fitting epithet if understood as conveying a pioneering talent for presenting one-hundred-per-cent Orthodox thought in ways accessible to modern man) we shall begin to find our answer.

Hirsch adopts a more holistic view to the question. By implication he reminds us of the connection between this passage outlining priestly blemishes and the opening verses of the Sidra which bar a Kohen from coming into contact with the dead (bar his next-of-kin and a met mitsva, one who has no family to oversee his burial). In other religions, ancient and modern, death and the dying are placed as it were on a pedestal. In ancient Egypt, one of the priests’ principal functions was to preside over funeral rites which lasted as much as seventy days. But “after the doings of the land of Egypt … you must not do” (Lev. 18:3). In Judaism, the role of the kohen-priest is to serve the needs not of the dead but of the living. To bring this point home graphically to him, the kohen is told not to get involved with any ritual involving the dead where his presence, as opposed to that of a non-kohen, is non-essential.

Now to Hirsch and the connection with the ‘blemishes’ section. The Torah, he says, sees the mizba’akh, the altar on which the kohen vicariously sacrifices, as life-affirming. Moreover, says Hirsch, “the altars of G-D … demand the surrendering of the whole human being to make man flourish in every phase of human life. That is why it must be perfect, complete individuals who have to perform the offerings in the sanctuary .…It is not to be only … the calamities of life which bring a Jew to seek G-D at his altars … to find …miraculous healing”. The mizbeakh is not a vehicle for morbid incantations over the cessation of life or limb. It is the vehicle by which life is affirmed in its many manifestations.

Just as the kohanim were not be preoccupied with death at the expense of life nor were they to be preoccupied with sickness at the expense of health. It is this graphic lesson which the kohen is taught when he is told that for the Temple service a mum in one of his limbs disqualifies him. “All my limbs will declare: who is like You, G-D!” exclaims the Psalmist. (35:10) A kohen who, albeit through no fault of his own, is deficient in even one of his limbs cannot serve G-D with his whole being. As such, he is barred from offering the korbanot in the holy places

Yet all this is in the rarefied realm of the sanctuary. There the kohen must be given a lesson for life and for life-affirmation. Outside of there, however, Judaism teaches an even bigger lesson for life – namely that even a mamzer who is a Torah scholar is more worthy of respect than an ignorant High Priest no matter how perfect in physique (Horayot 3:8). Man sees with his eyes – but to be Godly is to see into the heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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