These are the themes of Parshat Emor, this week’s Torah reading.
Emor may seem straightforward. But its view of disability is strange.
Because it seems to contradict last week’s parsha. Last week, Parshat Kedoshim said: make sure everyone counts. Rich and poor. Native and immigrant. Mother and father. Landed and landless. Deaf and blind people. Family and strangers. Adults and children. Humans and animals. Thus, you’ll create a holy community.
So what is this nonsense at the beginning of Parshat Emor? Any priest with a disability can’t serve? Anyone blind, lame, or scarred in any way doesn’t count? And thus you’ll keep the sanctuary holy?
This just doesn’t make sense. It’s too obvious a contradiction. Also, it is impractical. How many of us make it to adulthood without breaking a bone? Or having a rash, boil, or virus that leaves a scar? Very few of us. If these rules were enforced, very few priests could work.
But Torah isn’t meant to be ridiculous. (At least, I think not.) In fact, our sages say, it has no mistakes or contradictions. If we think we see one, we must take another look. Wearing, perhaps, our metaphor-coloured glasses.
Through these lenses I see a chain of symbolic parallels.
The priests facilitate the animal offerings. Each mammal offered must be perfect. Perfect in body, that is. And each grain offering must include only the choicest flour. So, perhaps the priests are held to the same standard.
But why? Maybe because the priests, too, are some kind of offering. Like the animals, they do not choose their fate. Instead, they are simply born into it. If you’re in a priestly family, then you must devote your life to sacred service.
But how different, really, are the rest of us? In Torah’s eyes, I mean. According to Parshat Kedoshim. We are all born into community. Thus, we have only one rational choice: keep that community healthy. Each of us must judge fairly. Feed the hungry. Love our neighbours as ourselves. If ethical living is sacred service, then we are devoted to it.
We, too, are some kind of offering.
But, do we have to be perfect? Not physically, of course, but in our service? In our offering of self to the community? Because that is an impossible standard. No one can be everywhere and do everything. Even if we try, we will make mistakes. Our offering of self will be flawed.
So, the analogy breaks down. You can’t argue that priests need to be perfect because their lives are offerings. Because no human offering is perfect.
Maybe it’s time to take off the metaphor-coloured glasses. To look at the peshat, the plain meaning of the text. Because it is not about the spirit, anyway. It is, literally, about the body.
On the one hand, any body could become injured, ill, disfigured, or disabled. At any time. But, on the other hand, at this moment in time, not every body is. So some of us might not notice just how hurtful the list of disqualifications is. How all the items have absolutely nothing to do with priestly skills of cutting, lighting, spicing, sprinkling, washing or carrying ashes. Instead, they are a list of features that someone has learned to see as defects.
Commentator Kli Yakar (1550-1619, Poland) also disliked this part of Emor. So, he tried to understand why it was even there. Back in Torah times, he said, people were superstitious. They thought disability was a moral defect. Evidence that a person lived carelessly. And would come to a bad end. The Kli Yakar was generally a sharp social critic. So, we know he was really talking about his own community. His own time and place.
The Kli Yakar died exactly 500 years ago. Since his death, science has advanced. But have we really shed our superstition? Or do we still live the Torah’s contradiction? Our ideals are strong. We say we believe in inclusive community. But our reality falls short. Often, it is hard for people with disabilities to join in. In our society, it’s not easy to get health care, transportation, or school accommodations. It’s hard to get in the building. And impossible to get out in an emergency.
These are some serious imperfections.
If only we could become more perfect by offering a perfect lamb. Or a perfect bowl of cereal. But, can you imagine the self-talk that would go along with the ritual? The prayer, that is, or the inner focus? “God, I wish I was as perfect as this dish of grits?”
No, you probably can’t. At least, not without laughing at yourself. Then, crying about the harm you have done. And, finally, resolving to craft a better community.
Thanks to Rabbi Ruti Regan and Charles Kaplan for your suggestions.