In this past week’s Torah portion, Emor, God tells us that a cohen is disqualified from performing the priestly temple service (and an animal is disqualified from being brought as an offering) if he has a “mum.” Mum is usually interpreted as a blemish or imperfection, the understanding being that only the perfect may service God. Left-handedness is considered a mum, and being left-handed, this always bothered me.
As I sat in the Chabad Jewish Center of North Phoenix listening to the Torah being read Saturday morning, a different interpretation of mum dawned upon me. Mum is not a blemish or other negative characteristic, it is a value-neutral characteristic. God doesn’t necessarily need the best or the brightest. A cohen could be the greatest Torah scholar of his generation and an Olympic athlete, but if he’s left-handed, he cannot perform God’s service. (Similarly, Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, notes that an animal with a mum can be considerably more valuable than one without, yet only the less valuable mum-less animal can be offered to God.) This is because the purpose of a cohen’s service is to represent to God the average or “normal” person (or animal). The cohen is there as a representative for all Jews, so he must fit the broadest demographic. Most Jews have two arms and two legs, so the cohen must as well. Most Jews are right-handed, so the cohen must be as well. A mum can be a disability, but it can also be an extra ability. Missing fingers is a mum, but so is having extra fingers. (Former six-fingered baseball pitcher Antonio Alfonseca demonstrated that having an extra digit may be beneficial.)
When one mentions missing fingers, the first name that comes to mind at present is Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the heroic rabbi of the Chabad of Poway who lost his fingers when shot by an anti-Semitic right-wing terrorist last month. I don’t know whether Rabbi Goldstein is a cohen, but if so, he would now be disqualified from performing the priestly temple service. But Rabbi Goldstein is not a cohen performing the priestly temple service, he is a rabbi, and more specifically, he is a Chabad shaliach. Judaism, unlike Catholicism and many other religions, has no set of legal qualifications or restrictions that apply only to members of the clergy. That is because whereas the cohen’s job is to exclusively service God as a symbolic representative of the Jewish people, the rabbi’s job is to service the Jewish people themselves, and help them connect to God. This is especially true of Chabad shlichim. Rabbi Goldstein losing his fingers does not make him any less of a rabbi. On the contrary, it elevates him, as it is yet another example of a life dedicated to saving his fellow Jews, usually spiritually, but in this case, physically.
When Rabbi Goldstein became a public figure in the aftermath of the attack on his synagogue, many remarked on how unique a person he must be. But while taking nothing away from Rabbi Goldstein’s heroism, I don’t believe he is unique. He is one of thousands of Chabad shlichim around the world. In any corner of the world, no matter how inhospitable the climate, if there may be Jews there, a Chabad couple will dedicate their lives to any Jews who appear in that corner.
Last Friday afternoon I found myself in north Phoenix with my flight home canceled. As an observant Jew, I had no idea where I could find a Shabbat environment, with prayer and kosher food. But as has happened to me dozens of times in my life when in a strange place for Shabbat or a Jewish holiday, I was rescued by a local Chabad. Rabbi Mendy Levertov knew nothing about me except that I was Jewish, and that was enough for him to open his doors and offer me community, food and drink.
To be clear, I have deep and fundamental differences with the Chabad movement, and likely with many Chabad rabbis. But never in my life has a Chabad shaliach asked me where I stand hashkafically or ideologically or politically. Chabad shlichim embrace their fellow Jews simply because they are Jews. This non-judgmental approach is unique in the Jewish world and could serve as an inspiration to the rest of us.
And so today, without delving into the issues that may separate us, I simply want to say to Rabbi Levertov and the hundreds of other women and men of Chabad who have rescued me time and again across North America, Europe and Asia: Thank you.